Bad Habit by Alana S Portero review – in search of acceptance

<span>Alana S Portero: a ‘juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane’.</span><span>Photograph: Florencia Downes</span>
Alana S Portero: a ‘juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane’.Photograph: Florencia Downes

Alana S Portero’s debut novel La mala costumbre, or Bad Habit, starts at an intensity of 11 and barely lets up. The first time the protagonist falls in love, aged five, is with her neighbour’s bloodied corpse after he has plunged to his death in a drug-induced stupor. He is a fallen angel to her: “I simply yearned with my entire soul to kiss something so lovely and helpless.”

This juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane runs throughout the rest of the novel, from its title to the many secondary characters, each of which is assigned a mythical double: the abusive man who lives across the hall is Bluebeard, his daughters Lady Godiva and Joan of Arc. Portero’s background as a historian lends these parallels depth and perspicacity, elevating what might otherwise be an unremittingly bleak story into a higher realm. As the protagonist gets older, she spends her nights in the arms of “dragon-men”, who are “tall, dark, and potbellied”, in an attempt to find the self-worth that is denied her elsewhere in life.

She is taken under the wing of a couple of wise, world-weary trans sex workers, one of whom may or may not be a cannibal

Since its release last year, Bad Habit has become a runaway bestseller in Spain, winning prizes, critical acclaim and foreign rights deals. Set in 1980s Madrid, in the “brutal, tender” neighbourhood of San Blas, the novel follows a trans woman’s slow, painful journey towards self-acceptance. Its characters are beautiful, tragic men whose lives are destroyed by drugs and violence, and headstrong, resilient women who look out for one another. The narrator – who rejects her birth name but does not reveal what she is called post-transition – is at first repulsed by the “grotesque” older trans women she encounters, but with time finds solace and mentorship in the city’s outcasts and misfits; she is taken under the wing of a couple of wise, world-weary trans sex workers, one of whom may or may not be a cannibal.

Pedro Almodóvar is an obvious reference point: he is mentioned in the text and one of the chapters is titled Volver (“to return”, like the 2006 film). The director himself has endorsed the book, saying: “I urge you, read Bad Habit to fully grasp the degree of adversity, pain, and danger endured for the virtue of growing up trans.” He is right: the novel sets out in clear, emotive language the everyday struggles – external but also internal – faced by trans people. Many of the sequences describing the protagonist’s mental turmoil, as she meticulously maintains a facade that she knows is slowly destroying her, are incredibly affecting.

The immediacy of the prose is evidently an asset, though the colloquial tone might work better in the original Spanish; in the translation, by Mara Faye Lethem, certain phrases come across as inelegant or pompous (“friggin’”, “I would quickly cross the threshold into the slumberer’s great beyond”). When it works, the writing is striking and lyrical: dust is described as “the breath of time settling on our things so we don’t forget it’s running out”, an old woman’s laugh is “like watching the bark on a particularly rough pine tree change attitude”. A scene describing Madrid’s Christmas rituals – “that cheesy, exaggerated aura that suited it so well” – is particularly evocative.

The novel’s tendency towards the overwrought (as befits a narrator who admits an ongoing infatuation with Morrissey) could do with variations in tone to make key scenes hit more potently. But the fact that a book like this can, amid growing global hostility to trans lives, gain such traction is incredibly heartening. When the narrator transforms herself “into a goddess”, head held high, it feels like a hard-won victory.

Kathryn Bromwich is the author of At the Edge of the Woods (Two Dollar Radio)

• Bad Habit by Alana S Portero is published by 4th Estate (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply