Review: Mercy Gene by JD Derbyshire

My Quick Take: I was riveted. This book took me alongside the author on their tumultuous journey of life and learning and didn’t let me leave until I’d learned a bit about myself too.

Thanks to Goose Lane Editions for a gifted copy! 


JD Derbyshire is a Vancouver-based writer, playwright and comedian. Their biography notes they are, “a mad activist, whose work examines mental health, neurodiversity, queerness and gender exploration.” Mercy Gene (Goose Lane Editions, 2023) is their first novel, based on their stage play Certified. It is truly a work of autofiction, with imagined scenarios, lists, poetry and literal recountings.

I was fortunate to see Derbyshire’s play Certified in 2019 and remember being in awe of their talent for creating a deep and difficult–yet ultimately hopeful–tale of their journey of living with mental health issues. They began with describing being “certified insane” to a Psychiatric ward, then at the end of the show, having recounted their story in creative bursts and fireworks, asked us, the audience, to decide whether they were now “sane.” Talk about putting oneself out there.

Mercy Gene is inspired by their play Certified, so I had to read it, and it did not disappoint. The writing is sharp, pointed and punchy–sometimes a direct hit, a literary knock-out blow. Derbyshire takes us on a non-linear journey of their life, though it gradually takes shape as their life story from childhood to the present. Through different eras, they name themselves differently: Janice as a girl, Jan as a teen and young adult, and now JD, a “genderqueer lesbian woboy.” JD, they note, wrote this book for Janice and Jan.

And what a tribute. The book is framed around Derbyshire’s experience of mental health in their life: the origin story of their multiple, fluctuating diagnoses; and the birth of their inner voices which seem to constantly berate. This is also, of necessity, a story of trauma, and Derbyshire does a beautiful job holding their previous selves–Janice and Jan–with gentle compassion. They use a combination of prose and prose-poetry, short story, conventional narrative and word-salad chapters (that must reflect their inner experience of tangential thinking at times). Sometimes, the voices are given free rein to take up the story.

There are so many impactful moments in this book that I’d be hard pressed to mention them all. Some chapters would stand on their own as beautiful flash-fiction pieces. Derbyshire will start with an idea, take it though winding and twisting paths, and end up at an unexpected destination. Take “Chronic female.” This is a one pager that starts with the ultimate understatement about female trauma and suffering, “It could have been so much worse,” then explores how they might have been treated in decades past, finally moving through to the present. They use language to create literary connections to darkly ironic effect.

The most devastating and compassionate episode in the book for me was “Lavender version,” a meditation on What If?. What if Janice had been able to tell about her trauma? What if someone who cared had listened, honoured and grieved that trauma with her when it needed to be listened to, honoured and grieved. What If? is a wonderful and horrible question.

Ever so gradually, Derbyshire shows us healing. This is their particular healing; clearly everyone has their own story and their own unique, hard-won combination of what works for them. I was taken with some of the meditation and mindfulness allusions, and saw a lot of Buddhism in the telling. They gradually see their voices as manifestations of trauma, as entities not able to separate from JD. JD gives them names, gets some distance, and does not “self” with the voices anymore. They get to know their voices as having been a helpful tool to distract from unthinkable trauma, and in this way can gradually let them go…kind of, as they still visit. In “Losing my marbles; Or, why the voices wish I wouldn’t meditate,” Derbyshire gives us figurative marbles shed from their body: 
“Wherever it emerged, the marble was heavy, dense with the weight of obsessive thinking, tightly layered with foggy, half-formed ideas wrapped around one another, fragmented sentences, a lot of question marks, even more exclamation marks, angry emojis, crying emojis, a long list of names crossed out with red ink.” 
Eventually, with what’s left, they approach the trauma itself: 
“My. My fault. One of the marbles stops long enough to whisper to me, Not the trauma itself, that’s not your fault, but how you treat others when you’re triggered. You have to take responsibility for your behaviour when you hurt someone. No exceptions. In this you will find some healing.”
I found this book impossible to read without questioning my own deeply held tenets of what mental health is, and contemplating what some of its manifestations (visitations?) are in our lives. We all have a different narrative, with different internal experiences, and all with different causes and conditions. Mercy Gene is Janice/Jan/JD’s unique story, and I felt privileged to visit it for a brief time. After acknowledging their past experience, and letting anger and grief flow freely, Derbyshire concludes:
“Out of the dark, still dripping with salty water, still a little on fire, walking into the larger world. And then?

Finding myself with something to say.”



...And then! I attended the book launch at the Massey Arts in Vancouver, after reading Mercy Gene and writing this review. I was so taken with Derbyshire's reading from their book. It is not a surprise that it was so affecting, as they are a theatrical performer, but: Wow. It was so emotionally resonant and the humour juxtaposed with pathos in the book shone with their reading of it. It was such a privilege to attend this event.