Marion Husband's The Boy I Love opens in 1919. Paul Harris has returned to civilian life a twenty-three year old man with a glass eye and shot nerves.After surviving the horrors of the trenches, horrors that he still relives each night in his dreams, he wants nothing more than to escape the stifling atmosphere of home life with his father. Adam, his brother's former friend and Paul's lover since the days before the war entered their lives, offers peace. Adam wants nothing more than for the two of them to live happily ever after together. Unfortunately, in 1919 that simply isn't possible.
SPOILER WARNING - here follows some slight spoilers. If you want to find out for yourself what happens, then get the book from Amazon. I can't recommend it highly enough.
On his return home, Paul discovers that his elder brother's fiancee Margot, the local vicar's daughter, is pregnant and in a cruel twist of fate his brother Robbie, having survived the war, is killed in a motorcycle accident. Without hesitation Paul proposes and Margot accepts. They're married within weeks, with Adam suddenly relegated from lover to best man.
Adam seems to take Paul's rather abrupt marriage in good spirit. Indeed, he thinks it could prove the perfect cover for their relationship, especially when the newlyweds move in only five doors down from him and Paul gets a job teaching at the same school. Paul, for his part, also seems to take his sudden change of situation in stride. To him, marrying Margot is about keeping Robbie's baby - without the protection of a husband, Margot would be forced to give the child up. He insists they tell no-one that he isn't the father - even Adam, who seems to mean it when he says he understands how mutual grief and consolation turned to passion.
The marriage is a slow starter. Paul's never been with a woman before, and their wedding night is spent in separate beds. Margot, however, finds herself increasingly attracted to a husband who has always been beautiful, even with a glass eye. A day trip away from home, and the burden of their old lives and roles falls away. Ultimately is isn't out of duty that Paul consummates his marriage, but desire.
What Paul didn't know - couldn't know - was that there was another man watching his wedding through narrowed eyes, a man who'd been in love with him since they met in the trenches. Patrick returned home an orphan, left with his parents' butcher shop and a twin brother relegated from army Major to double amputee. Mick is struggling to adapt to his new life, his dependence on others alien to him after a life of freedom and independence, and he finds it hard to accept that his handsome twin, identical to him in every other way, has no interest in women. Mick has never even been kissed.
Denied the ability to live even vicariously through his brother, he lashes out at those employed to care for him, his brusque nature masking his feelings of helplessness and his bitterness that he's given almost everything he has to protect people who now let their children stare and point when he goes out in public.
So many historical novels shy away from the truth about how queer lives were lived - and disabled lives, too. Husband does not do that. Paul lives his life looking over his shoulder, always worried that the wrong person has seen something, that someone suspects. The casual treatment of both Paul and Mick as somehow lesser, somehow lacking because of the wounds they brought back from the war, rings true on so many levels. The people so quick to judge and hand out white feathers to the men who didn't enlist don't want to be confronted with men maimed and broken now the war is over. Mick in particular is treated as less than human; a neuter who should be kept out of sight. Yet he's a young man, a man with a life ahead of him, strong-minded and filled with all the normal desires of any man his age.
The effect of the war on all these young men is woven subtly into the narrative; ever-present but never at the forefront, it is never the most pressing thing. This is life for them now, they must simply adapt as best they can. Whether it's the casual dismissal of Mick as a "freak", or Paul's neighbours banging on the walls when he wakes them screaming in his nightmares, it's just the cross they have to bear.
They cope in different ways. Mick, it transpires, writes poetry - good poetry, poetry that people want to publish. Rather than being praised for it, however, he finds himself shunned again - albeit briefly - the concrete proof that the war still affects his mind perhaps too much for some to deal with.
Through Paul's and (to a lesser extent) Patrick's eyes, we see again their time in the trenches. We see the team they formed, how they worked together, how they survived the horror of what they had to do. The day Paul's old school bully moves into his regiment, his hard-won sense of peace with himself and control of his life is shattered. Jenkins never lets up, never leaves him alone, he's a small, petty man who can't help pushing, pushing, pushing, like a kid with a stick. His malicious singing of The Boy I Love resonates through the text, it becomes the soundtrack to Paul's - and Patrick's - life; a double-edged dig that allows the truth to hide in plain sight. Jenkins knows, he guessed the truth about Paul and Patrick's feelings long before either of them told each other, or even fully confessed it to themselves.
Like every bully, however, Jenkins is ultimately a coward. A mission into the wastes of No Man's Land to capture a German soldier exposes the truth about the meaning of real bravery. Paul isn't a man to stand up and be seen; to be out and proud in a world where such behaviour would see him swiftly punished. His time in the trenches serves as a metaphor for queer existence at this period in English history: the brave man isn't the one who stands visible and thereby gets himself killed; but the one who finds a way to go out and do what he needs to do while keeping his head down and not drawing attention to himself. The coward - like Jenkins - hides in the safety of the trenches, never risking himself by reaching out for what he wants. Both at war and at home Paul takes calculated risks, he enters No Man's Land, he forms relationships with men.
Those looking for a happy, monogamous little romance, look away now. Husband's unflinching realism will perhaps mar the enjoyment of this story for some, but any fan of true, realistic historical queer fiction will recognise it for what it is and rejoice. Fidelity has little meaning to Paul: he takes his chances where he finds them, and when Adam becomes increasingly distant, unbearably hurt by the betrayal of Paul's marriage and reluctance to spend time with him, he falls willingly into Patrick's outstretched arms. Patrick enters their relationship with his eyes open: he knows Paul's married, and he knows that whatever they have is confined to Wednesday afternoons in a flat above his butcher's shop which he tries to turn into a safe haven where Paul can be himself, where they can make love and remember the past without ever discussing the future.
Love, however, knows no restraint. It is greedy in its demands and desires, it seeks the full attention of its beloved. Even for Patrick, their arrangement isn't enough. Learning the truth about Adam eats away at him: he can accept Paul's marriage, but not his relationship with another man.
Paul also finds himself conflicted. His initial sense of duty to Margot, and his desire for her, seem to fall by the wayside as real life and an increasingly-large baby bump loom between them. Exhausted and struggling in his job, which evokes all the terror of his own school days; increasingly distanced from Adam and now under pressure from Patrick, he flits from person to person: he says he loves Adam, then he says he loves Patrick - he doesn't say that he loves Margot, even when she says those three magical words to him. When she goes into labour, he's lying in the arms of another man.
Adam is the only character who we see solely through the eyes of others. Through Paul's eyes we see the lover, a young man made soft by all the tender emotions of the heart, who keeps Paul's photo by his bed and his letters in a box underneath. Through Patrick's eyes we glimpse his hurt at Paul's marriage, the burden becoming too great for him to bear. Briefly - but only briefly - we see that anger come spilling out, all the bitterness that has curdled within him and destroyed whatever it was they once had.
How I wish we'd seen more of him, seen him fight for Paul rather than fade away. There is no doubt he loved him and wanted a life with him, and I can't help but feel that Adam was sacrificed for Patrick; as the man who remained behind he couldn't understand, didn't know what Paul had been through, and couldn't compete with what Paul and Patrick had shared on the battlefields of France. Adam was sadly a little cardboard, the closing scene coming too late to make him a truly sympathetic character, which is a pity because I think he could have been.
But that's a small gripe. The Boy I Love is a wonderfully-written, beautifully evocative story. The small details - marmalade, woollen socks and dirt under fingernails - make this a visceral read. Husband doesn't shy away from the realities of life but her prose is never crude, never coarse. Instead the elegant, literary tone of The Boy I Love shines through. The ending, like in so many of these literary historical queer novels, is an enigma: Paul's journey is far from over, but the way his life is going to unfold from that point on is unclear. There is no happily ever after here; indeed there is neither hope nor despair. Like so much in this tale, the ending is what it is, presented simply for the reader to draw their own conclusions; to me it reads like nothing so much as another beginning, and I can't wait to read the second novel in this series and see Paul's story start again.
The Boy I Love is available from Amazon.
Final note: The cover has been changed for the ebook editions of this series, and I must say the publisher has done Ms Husband a terrible, terrible disservice. Go back up and look at that cover image again - yes, it's nice, but does that really say "gay" to you? Or does it say heterosexual Mills&Boon war-lite? If anyone from Accent Press is listening - what were you thinking? Cover Design 101 - make the cover reflect the content.
Kate Aaron is the bestselling author of contemporary and fantasy gay romances.
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