REVIEW: Box Hill, A Story of Low Self-Esteem by Adam Mars-Jones

The Official Description: The winner of the 2019 Fitzcarraldo Editions Novel Prize

A sizzling and deeply touching love story between two men, set in the gay biker community of 1970s London

In a vivid coming-of-age novel, a young man suddenly wakes up to his gay self—on his eighteenth birthday, when he receives the best gift ever: love and sex. In the woodsy cruising grounds of Box Hill, chubby Colin literally stumbles over glamorous Ray—ten years older, leather-clad, cool, handsome, a biker, and a top. (Colin, if largely unformed, is nevertheless decidedly a bottom.) Colin narrates his love—conveying how mind-blowing being with Ray is—in comically humble-pie terms. “If there are leaders then there must be followers, and I had followership skills in plenty just waiting to be tapped. To this day I can’t see a fat kid in shorts without wanting to rush over and give him what comfort I can. To tell him it won’t always be like this.”

Mars-Jones uses Colin’s naivete to give a fresh view of the world and of love. Before long, however, homophobia, class, family strife, and loss rear their ugly heads. Yet in the end, it seems Colin’s modest view oddly takes in the widest horizon: he learns that “people can care about anything.” A surprise and a pleasure, Box Hill is an intensely moving short novel.

Just the facts: Queer fiction, novella, award-winning

Adam Mars-Jones has packed a lot into such a short novella. I was equal parts drawn in and repelled.- Kinzie Things

My thoughts bit:  It may not have taken me very long to read this novella by Adam Mars-Jones, but I can guarantee you it will be on my mind for a very long time. The story has left me with mixed emotions – often opposites, and I’m feeling certain that my review won’t really do this book justice.

This book begins in 1975 in England… on Colin’s 18th birthday. He literally stumbles across a man’s boots at Box Hill. That man is Ray and immediately something sparks between them. Colin hasn’t thought much prior to that very moment about his sexual orientation or kinks… and he realizes in moments that the is gay and a definite bottom. That’s just the beginning of the epic tale of Colin and Ray.

There’s a lot packed into this novella and I think that is the same for Ray and Colin’s relationship. I don’t even know how to describe it. Is it love? Is it a partnership? Is it an understanding? What. happens between these two men isn’t even always consensual and yet, Colin seems content in a way that he wasn’t before he met Ray. At times, the things that Colin accepts as his fate prompted a visceral reaction from me. I was shocked that his self-esteem would let him believe that he was destined for nothing more than what was offered. I suppose that’s what makes this novella spectacular. As much as I wanted more for Colin, that was under my own interpretation… Colin is definitely finding out about himself even if he’s unable to find out much about Ray.

The description of the book almost reads as though Colin stumbles upon a lovely summer affair but the relationship between these two men is far from that. A perfect storm of low self-esteem and a powerful, domineering top results in Colin being a slave to Ray’s wants and needs. It’s fine for him, in spite of the fact that he refers to their first evening together as a “rape”.

The most remarkable thing about this novella is that I enjoyed it despite some of the situations that Colin found himself in. There were definitely things that made me uncomfortable but Colin is decidedly likable. I will definitely be looking for more by Adam Mars-Jones. Beautiful writing, provocative and intelligent.

Things You May Want To Know: Please be aware, I’m by no means an expert on what may or may not have the potential to disturb people. I simply list things that I think a reader might want to be aware of. In this book: (SPOILERS) sexually explicit, dubious consent, sex without protection (prior to HIV/AIDS pandemic), rape, homophobia.

I received an ARC of Box Hill by Adam Mars-Jones from New Directions via NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

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