Book review: A Real Piece of Work, Erin Riley

An insight into the life of a queer trans writer through a series of essays.

A Real Piece of Work is a joyful and heart-aching collection of essays that delves into Erin Riley’s queer trans journey through self and social acceptance. Each essay is separate from the others, delving into Riley’s experiences as a social worker, their connection with their parents and their intimate relationships. Despite being discrete, the essays slowly unveil Riley’s life and the complexity of identity and acceptance, creating a sense of shared experience.

One way Riley does this is through their chatty language; it’s as though the writer has joined you for a coffee catch-up with news to share. They write in solid paragraphs that make space for them to deeply inspect ideas, often having asides to check facts. Not everyone in these works are their best selves, like Julian, an uncle who needs his family’s support as he ages, but is often aggressive and derogatory to those around him.

Riley uses their asides to unpack Julian’s behaviour and, through this, generates sympathy for both sides. Riley’s language is about kindness that comes from considering the social influences and experiences of others to convey the complexities of human relations. 

Another strength to Riley’s writing is the lack of dialogue – it’s almost impossible to convey the exact words people say without a recorder and so Riley doesn’t. Instead, using their conversational approach, they describe the gist of conversations and frame the few quotes with a sense of why these particular words stuck in their memory. It makes the essays feel more trustworthy and so intensifies the sense of a friend telling their story. 

Riley is skilful at communicating experiences between people but veers off course with imagery. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense or is too heavy handed, such as how they overemphasise the impact of a rainbow appearing when they are travelling with their fiancé to meet Riley’s parents. Rather than calling attention to just the rainbow, they attach ‘the gay gods’ to it, breaking the moment of intensity and hopeful energy for parental acceptance. These moments are rare in the book overall and so are easy to look beyond within an otherwise well-crafted voice.

Some collections are for dipping in and out of, selecting whichever essay, regardless of the order, but not this one. Its ordering is part of what makes the book satisfying, because it reinforces Riley’s journey and allows these non-connected essays to speak to each other. While the book is not broken into parts, there are three groupings, starting with essays that revolve around Riley working out how to be themselves while trying to make everyone around them comfortable.

The essays within this grouping centre on how hiding your true identity impacts the self, but they also compassionately examine why people hide. The second grouping comprises several essays that focus on Riley being themselves and thriving. The third drills into social acceptance and non-acceptance. The structure allows the book to show the struggle and joy in being yourself, and emphasises the impact of non-acceptance.

Read: Book review: Exquisite Corpse, Marija Peričić

Riley’s collection of essays is a beautiful example of storytelling craft through non-fiction memoir. Personal experience and social science are explored in an easy, charismatic way. Riley has some work to do to strengthen their use of imagery, but for this collection, that can be easily ignored. A Real Piece of Work‘s essays could stand alone, but it’s so much better that they don’t because together they gently unfold the joy of acceptance and reveals how much work is still to be done in our society.

A Real Piece of Work, Erin Riley
Publisher: Penguin
ISBN:  9781761340154

Format: Paperback
Pages: 256pp
Release Date: 25 July 2023
RRP: $24.99

Anita Sanders is a writer based in South Australia. She has written for radio, print and stage including The City street magazine, Radio Adelaide and South Australian Youth Arts Company. She is a graduate of Flinders University’s Bachelor of Creative Arts (Creative Writing) and Deakin University’s Graduate Certificate of Business (Arts & Cultural Management).