Invisible Boys (Fremantle Press 2019), the debut novel by Holden Sheppard, had already won three awards before it was even published. And from the opening pages, I understood why. This intensely personal work of fiction features four boys, or young men, who could not be more different from each other, and yet I cared so deeply about each of them, about their feelings, their behaviour and their fates. The characterisation in this novel is so well-crafted that I was immediately immersed in their lives, and strongly invested in what happens to them. They all felt like my children and by the end of the book, I wanted to wrap each of them in a warm hug. The controversial attitudes evoked in this story, the thousand small cuts inflicted to these vulnerable young people, and the callous behaviour of others, are balanced by the burning flame of instinctual survival that flares as they each search for meaning and identity in their lives.
This is a book about difference, acceptance, values, friendship and desire; about the many shades of homosexuality and the consequences of intolerance and homophobia. It will make you think about the person you are, or the person you know or once knew, and reconsider them in a new light.
I’ve thought carefully about how to express this next part of the review. Like any story that is overt about sexual experiences, this may be at times uncomfortable to read, not because of the content (which is at times confronting) but because of the associated pain and suffering and distress that young people face as they struggle to recognise their own sexual identity. For those feeling invisible because of their sexual orientation, this story will be a release, a soothing balm, and an acknowledgment of their fears, their desires and their confusion. This may well be the book that changes lives by showing the breadth of gay experience, both good and bad, so that young gay people feel less alone. Invisible Boys is marketed as a YA book and it has all the hallmarks of that genre, as these characters wrestle with their families, their friends and their own psyches to find their own truths. But because the book is so unflinchingly honest and raw in its sexual descriptions, and because it deals with issues that could be triggering for young people, including suicide, the individual maturity of each reader should be considered and some reader discretion is advised. Having said that, if you know – or if you are – a young person aged about 16 to 25, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this (if you are a parent of someone in the younger age bracket: read it first and then make your own decision). Some readers younger than 15 will not be surprised by any of this content, and some older readers may still be coming to terms with the practicalities. I wonder if this was a non-fiction book about sex, whether this would even be an issue. Probably not. It is something about it being a fictional account full of accompanying feelings, about it being so personal to these particular boys, that makes it more real. And perhaps it is all the more necessary reading for that.
But I will say that the themes in this novel, and the visceral and honest examination of sexual desire, intimacy, romantic passion and love, are exactly the sort of frank literature that we need as a society; themes that we shouldn’t shy away from; themes that deserve the kind of emotional and analytical exploration that this book provides. But while the fumbling physical and emotional pain of sexual experimentation might be confronting for some, I suspect that it will be refreshing for younger readers to finally have a text that acknowledges that tension and confusion and explores their feelings as well as the consequences of acting on those feelings. For progressive YA readers, this will be honest writing and recognition of their feelings that has perhaps been absent from other, more ‘vanilla’ books. And importantly, for those who are ignorant, uncertain or even – on the other end of the spectrum – rampant homophobic bullies, this may hopefully be the prism through which they can more objectively see and relate to the experiences of others.
Set in the relatively small town of Geraldton, where everyone knows everyone else’s business (or at least thinks they do), the main characters are: Charlie, a rocker with black painted nails who makes a misstep early in the story which changes his life; Zeke, a shy overachiever from a conservative Italian family; Hammer, a wannabe footy star with an ego to match; and Matt, a gentle country farm boy with a loving family. In his acknowledgements, Sheppard says: ‘Though fictional, Zeke, Charlie and Hammer [and I would include Matt here] are all fragments of my own self, and I hope that in sharing this story, I might be able to help others like them – those who have felt invisible before, or who still do. If this is you, please be kind to yourself; if this is someone you know, please be kind to them; if this isn’t anyone you know, be kinder still, because the person who needs that kindness has made themselves completely invisible to you because that’s the safest thing they can do right now.’ This almost made me weep! Such compassion. Such empathy. Such wise words.
This is a story about boys coming of age and coming out. It’s a no-holds barred book that shares what it’s really like to be young, gay, confused, ashamed and guilty, while also being passionate and full of yearning and desire. I think it is the truest and most realistic novel I’ve read about the range of feelings young people harbour about their emerging sexuality, the social mores and familial expectations surrounding them, the conflict between socially accepted attitudes to homosexuality and the sometimes very different privately held views, and the absolute gritty and realistic reality of the difficulties of navigating sexual desire as a young person.
And also this book is so funny! The characters are likeable but flawed, loyal one moment and fickle the next. But throughout the story runs a seam of humour and self-deprecating honesty that is disarming and heart-warming and at times, laugh out loud funny. Sheppard has completely nailed adolescent angst, teenage drollness and attitude, and the language and tone of young men.
This is also a thoughtful book. These are issues that have been considered deeply. You can tell that this story, although fictional, draws from significant lived experience. These are characters that could be your children, your friends, your siblings, your neighbours.
The scenes of collision between each of the boys and their church, their family and their school ideology are particularly powerful; the complicated knot of the physical and emotional pain of first-time sexual experiences all tied up with the associated anticipation, joy and desire.
The writing is sharply observed, with rich and authentic dialogue. The plot reads like a fast-paced thriller. The anonymous letters that are interspersed throughout are a clever literary device – you don’t know which boy has written them, and when the answer is revealed at the end of the book, you will want to go back and read them all again with the advantage of this new knowledge. The conclusion is in some ways sad, in some ways frustrating, and in some ways like a Hollywood ending. Like the characters and the story itself, it is not one thing but everything at once; it is all possibilities and all resolutions.
My feelings upon finishing were that I immediately wanted to press this book into the hands of anyone struggling with their sexuality or struggling to accept or understand a friend or family member who is. (My own experience of sex education in the late seventies was a book that depicted ‘your changing body’ with a chapter dedicated to ‘Playing with Fire – masturbation!’ – so thank goodness we have moved on from that and now have these alternative narratives to which young people can truly relate.)
Invisible Boys shows that the quality of a man is not bravado or how much you drink or how many football tries you score or the marks you achieve, but rather what is in your heart: kindness, love and recognition. To see others. Being seen by others. Your true self being visible. Perhaps this book is the ignition you need to start up a conversation with your parent, your friend, your child or your crush. Permission to speak about difficult things. Courage to speak about sensitive things. Encouragement to acknowledge your true feelings. In this era of politicians spouting nonsense about gender whisperers and conversion therapy, this book represents the refreshing and progressive attitude that we need to embrace, and that our young people deserve.
Sheppard dedicates the book thus: ‘For you, if you have ever been invisible, or still are.’ I would expand that dedication to include practically everyone, because even if you have not experienced these circumstances or conflicts yourself, this book will open your eyes to those around you who may have once been invisible, or who still are, maybe – as he says – without you even knowing it. This book has the capacity to challenge opinions, to offer alternative perspectives and perhaps to change lives.