The Atheist and the Parrotfish
by Richard Barager
Evolved Publishing

"Hairless legs latticed by thick veins peeked out between the rims of his white socks and the hem of his dress. With caved-in temples and sunken cheeks, a dusky wattle dangling practically to his chest, broken teeth, sallow skin, and a glaze of despair in his eyes, it was hard to imagine a less appealing host for Carla MacGregor's youthful organs."

Cullen Brodie is a brilliant doctor and a kind-hearted person, but even saints carry darkness from their past in their hearts. An event in his youth caused Cullen to shut his mind to religion and spirituality. When he is tasked with transplanting the heart and kidney of the young and vibrant Carla into the body of Ennis, an old cross-dressing man, a spiritual journey is set in motion. Ennis emerges from his transplant operation claiming he's brought Carla with him. Cullen's entire belief system is shaken as he begins to question the nature of humanity and the possibility of souls. Told through Cullen and Ennis's alternating points of view, The Atheist and the Parrotfish tell of moral and ethical dilemmas, the nature of the body and soul, and the struggle of two very different men to accept conflicting aspects of themselves.

How can a man of medicine and science believe in God? Are organ donations ever "wasted" on people? What does cross-dressing have to do with Christianity? Richard Barager raises some difficult questions and is not afraid to get his hands dirty in an honest attempt to answer them. The rational but stubborn Cullen and the crass but lovable cross-dressing Ennis lend their eyes and minds to the reader as they tackle moral and ethical dilemmas head-on. Their large personalities don't fall too deeply into stereotypes as Barager represents both as realistically as possible. It's clear that the author built these characters up from a wealth of personal experience (for Cullen) and research (for Ennis), and the result side-steps away from what we're used to seeing. Ennis, in particular, offers depth to cross-dressing, his motivations, and how he faces society's reaction to his lifestyle. On this point, Barager hits the bull's-eye: Those who are open to Ennis's cross-dressing nature are often shown to be biased in their thoughts, even among other cross-dressers. This discrepancy opens a conversation about acceptance that continues through the book as a central theme.

The Atheist and the Parrotfish spends a good deal of time exploring the past, sinking deep into the backstories of both Cullen and Ennis. The book builds on the backstories of these two intriguing characters, painting them in full and vivid color. All this buildup creates a perfect platform for presenting the moral questions that the book hinges on. With such differing points of view, readers get to see both ends of the belief spectrum. Cullen is cynical while Ennis is spiritual—despite his lifestyle being apparently at odds with religious teachings. The questions faced by these two—and their wide supporting cast—hit on a number of big themes: the inner and outer struggle of being a cross-dressing man, a doctor's struggle to do his best even when the ethics are shaky, the idea of a soul carrying over into another body, even the ethics of abortion and whether organ recipients should have contact with their donors' families.

Through all this, one central question looms over the novel: the question of God. How can a benevolent God allow for bad things to happen? The book asserts that you have to take the good with the bad, though this conclusion is diminished when the book attempts to tie everything up a bit too neatly toward the end. Yet despite this fault, this well-written, gripping book is a deep dive into some intriguing dilemmas. Cullen and Ennis make their opinions clear, but the readers will be left wondering what their own stance is.

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