Police officer Peter meets Ayla when she is battered and bruised, mentally and physically broken after being beaten by her own family. Her only crime is the fact that she is transgender and has returned home after chest surgery, her family’s strict religious beliefs more important to them than their acceptance of her.
Peter’s emotions are a mixture of sympathy, anger, and disbelief, but he cannot deny his attraction to Ayla, despite their twenty-year age gap. After taking her home from the hospital and then giving her a few days to heal, Peter then phones Ayla to ask her out. She agrees, and the couple begin a whirlwind romance.
When Ayla’s life is threatened by her family, Peter steps in, giving Ayla the security of his home and showing her that he accepts everything she is — but will this be enough?
Once in a while, as a reviewer I am lucky enough to receive a book that bowls me over completely. My Name is Ayla is exactly one of those novels, filling me with a myriad of emotions and then hitting me with a sucker punch to the heart. Phetra H. Novak does not hide behind her fiction in My Name is Ayla. Instead, she uses the depth of these characters to transparently comment upon not only Sweden’s current political climate, but the world’s. Novak has clearly thought about how she can achieve this effectively and it is no mistake on the author’s part that Ayla’s family are Muslims. The important aspect in this regard is that Novak makes the distinction between fundamentalists, such as Ayla’s uncle and cousins, and those who are simply religious:
As he made his way to the station, his mind tried to assimilate and understand what he had seen. The core of the problem was not religion, but religious extremists and a cultural heritage that harked back centuries, no matter if it was Islam, Christianity, or any other religion. He believed it was the extremists who tried forcing their beliefs on others and used violence, or, as they said “to continue their traditions”. That was the problem.
This matter is obviously not only relevant to Ayla’s treatment, but current affairs globally where it seems terrorist attacks have become weekly news stories.
As I have mentioned, My Name is Ayla is set in Novak’s home country of Sweden. I think the setting adds a certain nuance to the novel. Novak is able to include features that will be unfamiliar to many of her readers, like ‘fika,’ the weather, and specific holiday celebrations. However, these are positive reflections of Sweden and, on the flip side, Novak also addresses the honor killings and the difficulty of living in Swedish society as a member of the LGBT+ minority groups:
Ayla is lucky she lives in a country that at least semi-protects her from the bullshit that she has been subjected to. But still, in this country, honor abuse and killings have become a damn norm that Swedes with one foot in two worlds live with, each and every day.
Novak’s commentary on her country is critical and eye-opening and brings a sense of realism to this fictional situation she has created.
I have read very few books with transgender characters so for me, My Name is Ayla, was particularly interesting. I admit that though I am accepting of all, regardless of color, gender, and sexuality, I have only a limited education about an individual who is in transition. My Name is Ayla introduced me to the concept that though as Adam, Ayla was fiercely unhappy, she is not entirely comfortable with the idea of surgery to remove her penis. I think Novak’s approach to this is extremely touching and I loved the scene when both Ayla and Peter are stood naked in front of the mirror. As someone who has her own body issues, I thought Novak reveals each character as imperfectly beautiful and this was wonderful to see. Peter is someone who identifies as pansexual. I would have expected this to have been revealed earlier in the story than Novak chose to, but to me, this just emphasized the fact that the feelings between Ayla and Peter were honest and true.
Without wanting to spoil the book, I think readers should be warned that My Name is Ayla is not the happy ever after they may be expecting and Novak’s choice of ending will hit hard. This did not taint the story in any way for me and I would wholeheartedly recommend My Name is Ayla.