1975- A Bank Holiday weekend and Colin, the narrator, is spending his 18th birthday at Box Hill, near Leatherhead Surrey. He’s got there on the back of his sister’s ex-boyfriend’s motorbike. He has been taken out for the day because his mum is in hospital and he has had a row with his Dad. Box Hill is a meeting place for leather- clad motorcyclists and whilst on a walk Colin trips over the feet of Ray and from that point on his life is changed.
This was a title I highlighted as one I wanted to read in my post which looked forward to 2020 publications (I’m doing rather well with these having now read 50%). A copy I ordered from Waterstones went astray in the post and so I purchased it on Kindle. (It was later returned to Waterstones who were very good at reimbursing me). That did mean I missed out on the physical sensation of the classy blue-covered Fitzcarraldo edition (I had been wanting to read one of this independent publisher’s books for a while because there is something very impressive in their stark appearance). This is obviously a publishing house who really wants the content of the book to do the talking. If you are not sure what I am talking about have a look at their website to see what I mean. It is pushing this to call it a novel. At 128 pages in the paperback edition it is no more than a novella which I read in a couple of sittings.
I’m not sure what I was expecting having never read Mars-Jones before but I was surprised how accessible this work was. I think I was expecting it to be somewhat literary and impenetrable. It is written in a highly endearing chatty style which looks back on the events of 1975 from a viewpoint of almost a quarter of a century. The author has subtitled this “A Story Of Low Self-Esteem” and this is certainly the case as the narrator enters a relationship where he is certainly subservient and has little real knowledge about the life of his partner. If this might seem far-fetched consider Colin’s youth leading him not knowing what to expect; the age difference between them and the 1975 setting where to live as a gay man was very different to how it is nowadays actually makes it chillingly plausible.
Colin is happy to sleep in a sleeping bag on the floor by the side of his lover’s bed and never questions any actions or strange behaviours because he does not know any different. This is a love story but to our modern eyes it is disturbing especially when Colin becomes a mascot for the motorcycling group and wholly accepts behaviour which would nowadays be considered abusive but for him it is a great romance.
I really liked how this was written. I liked the details which cause the narrator to step back from the past. There’s lots of little asides- an incident with alcohol causes him to look back to childhood Christmases with his parents and their tipple of choice, advocaat. So as their child is not left out he is given a glass but his is custard. A small moment which I felt said a lot about this character.
I was never less than intrigued by this story. My main quibble comes with the novella form. I end up feeling slightly short-changed and here I would have liked the plot to be fleshed out into greater length. There was certainly enough material here for this to have happened and especially as I was enjoying the writing so much. Some of Adam Mars-Jones’ other fiction is quite substantial so now I feel I’ve dipped into his writing and been enthralled that I would benefit from exploring further.
Box Hill was published by Fitzcarraldo in 2020.