A nine year old boy living in Bolton in the mid 1980s becomes obsessed with Madonna when given a copy of her single “Lucky Star” for his birthday. This is the story of his next twenty years with the music of Madonna always very much a focus in his life. Need I say any more, you are going to know already whether this book is for you.
Madonna provides an opportunity for the young Charlie to escape into himself to avoid the anxieties of knowing he is growing up different, magnified by living in an unsophisticated, football-orientated working-class environment. Later her talent for reinvention guides him as he makes life choices.
Matt Cain writes well (this is his third novel and he has considerable journalistic experience) and has produced a very readable, entertaining book. He has chosen to head each chapter with an appropriate Madonna song title which is a nifty enough idea, although at times can feel a little forced. Over twenty years Charlie faces situations that every gay man will recognise as will every family member or friend of a gay man. There’s virtually the whole gamut of experience in these 416 pages and it may very well be this which stops this good book from becoming a great one.
By covering all bases Cain doesn’t allow himself to write with the depth which will provide a different viewpoint for the reader other than recognition. Charlie himself can be somewhat shallow as a character but by narrowing the focus down and exploring certain of his issues with a greater depth I think could have proved an even more satisfactory experience. Getting all those song titles to fit the structure and all of the stages of Charlie’s development has made the book overlong. There were quite few places (I read a Kindle version so my reading experience was influenced by this) where I thought it had reached a natural end and turned the page to find it hadn’t.
I feel like I am being churlish because I would very much like people to read this book, but I can’t help feeling that with this subject matter and with the author’s accessibility and energy that there’s an even better book lurking inside. Its episodic nature means that chapters build and end and then are followed with something which occurs months afterwards when occasionally it is the parts that fall in the gaps between chapters which would have been the most interesting to read. This is always the danger with this type of structure and I don’t think Cain fully avoids it. But then again, I did enjoy it. My three star rating might seem mean and if I was reviewing this book, say, for Attitude or Gay Times magazine I would award it an extra star because I think that the readership of these titles would get much from it. But for the more general reader….
My current Book Of The Year, John Boyne’s “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” covered some of the same ground and also used this risky episodic structure and was hugely successful because as I noted then “but what comes next was just as involving or even better.” Boyne’s book is far stronger, which in itself justifies the two star difference between them but Matt Cain certainly has a story to tell and does it well. I will be certainly keen to read his previous novels.
This book has been published by “Unbound” and has been funded by pledges from potential readers. This is an idea from centuries ago given an up to date twist by using the internet to develop a fan base for a title. The names of those who subscribed are listed at the back of the book. This type of active participation from readers is a fascinating proposition. I had not heard of “Unbound” before this but a visit to their website provides opportunities to find out about future projects and to sign up for their newsletter, which I have done .
The Madonna Of Bolton was published by Unbound in 2018