Published 2005 by Paperview UK (first published 1982)
Author: Edmund White
Genre: Fiction/Gay Fiction/Semi-autobiography
Star Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
“We’re going for a midnight boat ride.”
Originally published in 1982 as the first of Edmund White’s trilogy of autobiographical novels, A Boy’s Own Story became an instant classic for its pioneering portrayal of homosexuality. The book’s unnamed narrator, growing up during the 1950s, is beset by aloof parents, a cruel sister, and relentless mocking from his peers, compelling him to seek out works of art and literature as solace-and to uncover new relationships in the struggle to embrace his own sexuality. Lyrical and poignant, with powerful evocations of shame and yearning, this is an American literary treasure.
My edition of this book is the ‘Banned Books’ edition published by Paperview for The Independent. It was this that provoked me to pick it up and have a look. I find it interesting to know why a book was banned, and I think it is a subject worth exploring. Can you put a ‘ban’ on what people read, and who get’s to make the decision? I would argue that if you don’t want to read a book (for whatever reason) then nobody will force you to (unless, of course, you are studying it), but I understand that in the past society has had different views on what is deemed ‘acceptable’ and therefore readable by the public. One of the more touchy subjects is sexuality, and in the case of Edmund White books, homosexuality. The introduction to this edition touches on this immediately:
“”In America” says Edmund White in the Afterword to ‘A Boy’s Own Story’ “the best way to bury a secret is to publish it”. He was partly joking, of course. If he had really wanted to “bury” the secrets of an adolescence spent grappling with a sexuality still seen as a sickness, he might have done better not to write, and publish, a novel that would become an instant classic.”
I am always one for picking at the blurb of a book to find a reason to buy it if it isn’t a book I’ve heard of, and the blurb of this one said ‘A Boy’s Own Story brilliantly evokes a young man’s coming of age and casts an eye on American gay life through the last forty years’. Since I have an interest in and enjoy reading gay literature, this was a definite must have, and was the first book I read of Edmund White’s (and the book to secure his place as one of my favourite writers).
It is the first in a trilogy of autobiographical novels (the other two being The Beautiful Room is Empty and The Farewell Symphony) and is told from the perspective of an adolescent boy who represents the author. I enjoyed reading the story from his perspective, as it gives us an insight into what he wants and desires in life, and he makes it very known that he yearns to be loved by the men in his life (whether that be his father or other boys his age).
I particularly enjoyed reading about his first experiences with a boy who gave the impression of being straight despite making advances on the boy. This, I believe, was a scene inherent to the banning of the book, considering how young both the characters are, our narrator being fifteen and the boy (Kevin) just twelve. The exchange leading up to their shared sexual experience sees Kevin asking our narrator about his experiences with women, which shows a young curiosity for pleasure and intimacy, which is what I suppose gets them ‘in the mood’, but us as readers know that for our narrator (remembering this is all told from his point of view) the experience is one that he has longed for with a male in particular.
Aside from the homosexual nature of the novel, the ‘Coming of Age’ aspect is also one that I love to read, and the prose in this novel, as well as some of the way our narrator phrases the way he feels, is beautiful at times and funny in others. He has a very strong imagination and this adds another layer to the storytelling as a whole, and whether you read this as someone who has had similar experiences or not, the main character of this story is one whose story is worth reading.
I have yet to read the following two novels but they are on my bookshelf waiting and I’m sure I will enjoy finding out what he gets up to and where he ends up in the subsequent novels. But, A Boy’s Own Story can read as a stand-alone novel and I would recommend this to anyone who loves romantic, beautifully told stories that surround a greater struggle.
Some of my favourite quotes from the book:
“I was peaceful and happy because we loved each other. People say young love or love of the moment isn’t real, but I think the only love is the first.”
“I hypothesized a lover who’d take me away. He’d climb the fir tree outside my window, step into my room and gather me into his arms. What he said or looked like remained indistinct , just a cherishing wraith enveloping me, whose face glowed more and more brightly.”
“A popular quiz for masculinity in those days asked three questions, all of which I flunked:
(1) Look at your nails (a girl extends her fingers, a boy cups his in his upturned palm)
(2) Look up (a girl lifts just her eyes, a boy throws back his whole head)
(3) Light a match (a girl strikes away from her body, a boy toward – or perhaps the reverse, I can’t recall)
“I saw literature as a fantasy, no less absorbing for all its irrelevance – a parallel life, as dreams shadow waking but never intercept it.”