In the opening chapters of Nicola Dinan’s debut novel, Ming, an intelligent young playwright from Kuala Lumpur, is seen from the perspective of adorably awkward Tom. They fall for each other at a British university, where Ming presents as a fey boy with an air of self-possession. But the lovers wake in bedsheets drenched from night sweats, a side effect of the citalopram prescribed for Ming’s OCD. Ming’s mother, and lodestar, died six years ago.
Tom learns about Ming’s vulnerabilities in fragments – which is much how Tom discovers himself. Tom sports thick vintage jeans and a sweatshirt with an ornithological logo: “No, actually, I’m not super into birds.” He has cultivated a look that will make him appear as if he “didn’t care but cared enough”. Tom is, Ming points out, the son of “middle-class Camberwell gentrifiers who worship at the church of Ottolenghi and knitted alpaca cardigans”.
By the time of this snarky observation, Ming is narrating. The switch doesn’t feel gimmicky; the dual perspectives elegantly enact themes of transition and relationality. Bellies is a novel about feeling seen – I don’t mean this as glib. It is aflutter with the complex layers beneath interpersonal relationships, while always attentive to the surfaces young people construct and navigate.
Ming is worldly compared with Tom, whose biographical highlights include being there when Shia LaBeouf headbutted someone in a south-east London pub. The two fizz with first love, surrounded by friends including Tom’s cuddly straight pal Rob and ex-girlfriend Sarah, who has also recently come out, with “a monkish new wisdom about all things queer, but none of the monastic silence”. Conversations are studenty: Sarah is annoyed that Rob isn’t familiar with the concept of “comphet”, or compulsory heterosexuality; Ming hasn’t figured out why Hegel needs “a socialist defence”; and is it a bad idea to “drop” during your DJ set?
On a trip to Malaysia, where Ming’s mother died – and “it’s not so hot for the gays”, reports Ming – the couple eat kuih seri muka and yong tau foo. Dinan summons different locations with supple grace. (“Places move into people just as much as people move into places,” she writes.) She is also deft at depicting intimacy. Tom and Ming listen to each other’s bellies gurgle, watch Britney Spears’s snake dance on a laptop and practise Meisner technique, a theatre exercise of closely observing a partner’s actions.
After graduating, the pair move in with Tom’s parents in south London. Contrary to his lefty politics, Tom launches a career in finance. He struggles to sync his desires with Ming’s increasingly feminised body – which he describes as “strong-armed into a kind of anti-pubescence”. As Ming better sees herself as a trans woman, she emerges from the image that Tom still carries with him.
The way she is read by strangers becomes all the more consequential. On the London Overground, a girl in loose trousers smiles at her. “She looks like an ally,” Ming muses. “The kind that doesn’t know any queer people but makes her boyfriend watch Drag Race.” A man clutching a Strongbow on a bus glances a little too long, smirks and moves to a closer seat. There’s no need to explain Ming’s trepidation. Last year, it was reported that transphobic hate crimes in the UK had increased by 240% in five years.
The significance of being seen by others, Hannah Arendt once wrote, derives from “the fact that everybody sees and hears from a different position”. The book gets lonelier, in tension with its twinkling urban landscapes. Ming tries out New York City. In Europe, Tom tests out a modelling career. Each new experience is inseparable from monetisation: the hookup apps, the pulsating Vauxhall cruise club that Tom attends in nervous pursuit of masculine encounters. When Ming puts on a two-person play recreating her pillow talk with Tom, it raises uncomfortable questions of privacy, representation and betrayal. Has real life become merely a precursor to oversharing?
The protagonists are maddeningly gorgeous. I found myself bitterly willing Tom to faceplant on the catwalk. But the hotness quotient is one of many aspects that make Bellies such a juicy read. And secondary, even tertiary, characters are carefully formed. Ming’s stepmother, Cindy, for instance, initially seems to be pure comic relief: tacky, very un-English. (“It’s Dior! Half off!”, she announces when complimented by Tom’s low-key mother.) But when Cindy visits Ming in Manhattan, she is recognised for her many other dimensions. The scene in which the pair attend an off-Broadway production of Little Shop of Horrors is a hoot, and very moving. Dinan continually invites readers to reconsider the characters, and following on from these encounters the climax is devastating.
At its best, Bellies is as deep as it is chic, propelled by the good intentions dropped between different wavelengths, a sensitive study of the challenge of moving past judgment towards perception.
• Bellies by Nicola Dinan is published by Doubleday (£14.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.