The short story collection Broken Rules and Other Stories (Transit Lounge 2020) may be Barry Lee Thompson’s debut but many of the included stories have won awards or competitions or been shortlisted or published elsewhere.
The overarching themes of the book relate to sexual awakening, homoerotic experiences, gender identity, and young men exploring their sexual desires. But we are not hit over the head with these themes – it is only partway through reading that you realise that so many of the stories touch on these issues, even if in a tangential way. Some are more obviously direct in their examination of sexual mores, tastes, societal rules and prejudices, while others merely hint at yearning and desire, hidden in a literary tale with a completely different focus.
While all of the stories are strong, I found some more compelling than others – and as with most collections, this will no doubt be the case with many readers: some stories will resonate more deeply. My absolute favourite is Gray, a poignant and moving tale of a young male sex worker and his experience with a much older client. This story packs so much punch into just a few pages and is incredibly compassionate. Another favourite is The Americans, which features an English family on an annual seaside holiday who meet a glamorous American family, and the frisson of desire that occurs between the two young men. The ending is particularly moving, and as with many of the stories, ambiguous – leaving us to wonder what might have happened after that last sentence. Another firm favourite is the titular story, Broken Rules. This again focuses on the relationships between couples and between parents and children; it has a surprising moment of revelation, and a telescopic rear-view mirror look at the past through an aging parent.
There are stories about the complicated relationships between mothers and sons, many highlighting the revealing of a young person’s sexuality to their parents, or conversely, demonstrating that the parents are well aware of their adolescent’s sexual desires before anything is ever said. There are stories that explore the quiet yearning of unrequited passion, and stories that celebrate the brash openness of fully expressed desire. The story Angel finishes with a heartbreakingly poignant scene.
The writing is highly sensual: taste, smell, sound, touch and sight are all exquisitely rendered through the fine attention to small details. An interesting and compelling collection that will deeply affect some readers, particularly those attracted to the themes and subject matter.