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Roller Girl by Vanessa North


Recently divorced Tina Durham is trying to be self-sufficient, but her personal-training career is floundering, her closest friends are swept up in new relationships, and her washing machine has just flooded her kitchen. It’s enough to make a girl cry.

Instead, she calls a plumbing service, and Joanne “Joe Mama” Delario comes to the rescue. Joe is sweet, funny, and good at fixing things. She also sees something special in Tina and invites her to try out for the roller derby team she coaches.

Derby offers Tina an outlet for her frustrations, a chance to excel, and the female friendships she’s never had before. And as Tina starts to thrive at derby, the tension between her and Joe cranks up. Despite their player/coach relationship, they give in to their mutual attraction. Sex in secret is hot, but Tina can’t help but want more.

With work still on the rocks and her relationship in the closet, Tina is forced to reevaluate her life. Can she be content with a secret lover? Or with being dependent on someone else again? It’s time for Tina to tackle her fears, both on and off the track.
Sports novels (or, indeed, sports generally) and romance novels aren’t things I’m usually interested in – indeed, sports usually gets me to tune out completely, I care that little about it. So a romance novel centred on a sport, even one I find interesting, like roller derby? That’s going to be a tough sell; but I was recommended Roller Girl for its queerness and, well, took a punt…

It turns out what my life might have been missing was queer sports romance books, because this was something of a balm to my soul. Centred on trans woman Tina, who is relatively recently divorced in the wake of her transition, Roller Girl shows a supportive queer community in the traditionally queerphobic space of sports; it talks about transness and queerness frankly, but also kindly; it shows spaces of female friendship and solidarity that are open and welcoming to queer and trans women. Indeed, by the novel’s end, North has built on that to show enby openness too; this is queer-positive, sex-positive, kink-friendly, and simply achieves all that, without trying (too much; occasionally it can be a little Queer 101, although textually justified as being 101 for a straight character).

Tina is an absolutely brilliant character, who will resonate with a lot of people; she’s unsure of herself, constantly self-questioning, and never realising her own positive worth and impact on people around her. Indeed, Roller Girl can be read as a novel about (dysphoria-linked) depression as much as anything else, and how Tina comes into herself through both supporting and being supported by others; and it’s a book about coming out of the closets, as a process rather than a single moment, and the impact an ordinary person coming out of the closet can have on people. As a character study it’s small-scale but every individual really jumps off the page, from romantic partner Joe, to teammate Stella, from old friend and wakeboard rival Ben to Jeffrey, a personal training client; Vanessa North uses very economical methods to give them characters, but none are simple and two-dimensional, they’re complex and interesting characters with obvious stories in their own rights (some literally).

The place where it perhaps falls down is on plot. Roller Girl forgets certain things, like time – there appear to be giant emotional jumps and time jumps not signalled on the page at times, and everything either takes place in the space of two months or a week or some undetermined time, there are far too few markers – and there isn’t really time to build up some of the things North needs to earn her moments of emotional catharsis, so it can feel a little forced at times; the conclusion especially feels wholly unearned, as if we’re missing a good chunk of story that North just wasn’t interested in writing. The character development somehow avoids feeling rushed by this, but the development of relationships at times can very much feel forced by narrative necessity.

One final note about Roller Girl, and that is that it is hot. There are only a couple of sex scenes, but each one is written with an intensity and force, and an understanding of personal kinks and drives, of individual needs and desires, and of mutual consent, that steams off the page; North acknowledges the awkward fumbling, the passionate drive, and the ridiculous joyousness of (good) sex and writes it into her book, avoiding cliche and passionless description alike in some really brilliant scenes that jump out from the page.

Roller Girl might not be perfect, but it’s the book I needed the day I read it, and Vanessa North has written something that works as a balm for this troubled queer soul.

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