A Review of Brent van Staalduinen’s “Boy”
I don’t know about you, but I read books in part for the opportunity they offer in escapism. Books are a magical place where you can briefly run and hide from all of life’s anxieties and be transported to worlds either distant from our own or close to home. Sometimes, though, books can be depressing. They can be filled with problems placed on its protagonists that seem so daunting and overwhelming, that it’s hard to enjoy the book or novel for what its worth. That’s not to say that all novels that turn out this way are bad — we certainly do need kitchen sink realist books. However, some volumes don’t come as advertised, and Brent van Staalduinen’s Boy is, unfortunately, one of those books.
This is a shame as there was some real potential here. If you read the synopsis of the book, you would think that it is between two characters: the titular Boy, so named after Boy George, an 18-year-old young man living in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, and Mara, a tramp living in a culvert who has the magical ability to stop time. Based on that description, you would be forgiven for walking into this novel thinking it might be a little light-hearted and sentimental. This is, alas, not the case. For one thing, Mara is hardly in the book! And his magical abilities are sorely underused. I mean, if you’re going to put magic realist elements into your book, you might as well use them! But, no.
What this book is more or less about is the fact that Boy is mired in a lot of trouble. Once a promising student and candidate for the Royal Military College of Canada, Boy’s grades in his final year are plummeting. His dad is in prison for killing his 12-year-old sister and another young girl in a car crash years ago, and Boy can see and talk to his dead sister, now a ghost. (This is probably the novel’s one main conceit to real magic realism or fantasy fiction.) His mother is an alcoholic and drug addict who has shacked up with another man and has recently produced another son for Boy with this man. Boy winds up having to play the parent and look after this son, named Jason or Jay for short, which may or may not be one of those factors that are causing Boy to fail at school. If that wasn’t enough, Boy is being bullied, is being chased by ex-cons, and, by the way, has happened to make a young woman pregnant in Washington, D. C., based on a fling he had while travelling to the U.S. To top things off, Boy may have an STD.
As you can see, Boy is one big sob story. Boy is a stoic character, and this comes from his military training and background, but we’re supposed to sympathize with him — a young man clearly in over his head who simply cannot ask for help. This is tough. At any point, Boy’s life could get better if only he were to reach out — but he never does. The closest he comes to talking about his problems is either through his one-sided conversations with his dead sister’s apparition or through his interaction with Mara, who is a wasted character as he’s given not very much to do. There’s also the hint that Mara might have been involved in shady stuff in his past — but this is not teased out and we really aren’t sure what to think of him, if he’s a good guy or a bad guy who is only adding to Boy’s troubles. Anyhow, since Boy doesn’t ask anyone for help, it’s hard to root for him and hope for a positive outcome to his woes.
What’s more, the plot keeps on piling on and on and on, and this means that certain plot points get dropped. We don’t hear much about Boy’s potential STD or the child he may have sired in the States. Stuff like this gets wrapped up at the end of the tale with a one-line synopsis of what has or might go on regarding the issue in the future. Thus, Boy is an uneven book. It feels a little rush and unfinished, and characters walk in and out of the tale only whenever the plot calls upon them to do so. This is too bad, because Boy had a crackling good premise. However, this premise winds up being eventually squandered because it’s really about something else entirely than what you thought it might be.
Despite all its deficiencies, there are some positives about this tale. It is, for all of its lack, fairly well written — especially for a story that is probably aimed at older teenaged males. There are no quotation marks around dialogue, everything that is said is either italicized or preceded by an em-dash. This little bit of experimentation is somewhat endearing, even if it does prevent you from getting closer to the story. As well, Canadian author van Staalduinen has a delightful ear for dialogue, and sometimes you will wish there was no narration at points so these characters could just go on speaking to each other, so rich is the language that is used just in talking.
Still, in the end, Boy is disappointing. The reader might think, before cracking open the spine on this one, that there would be more magic in the tale and more fantasy elements. Sadly, the magic is little used and doesn’t have too much bearing on what happens in the plot, for the most part. The main star of the show is Boy, and that’s a little problematic since he’s so wishy-washy and happens to have things happen to him rather than moving the plot forward by taking action. Boy is a tale that brings about high expectations before you read it and those expectations essentially just evaporate as you read it. Boy could have been something more — high escapism, perhaps. At the end of the day, it’s just another troubled coming of age story, and we already have plenty of those.
Brent van Staalduinen’s Boy was published by Dundurn Press on October 20, 2020.
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