In 1909 on his first visit to the US, Sigmund Freud addressed an audience at Clark University in Massachusetts on the thorny topic of childhood sexuality: ‘…it is certainly not the case that the sexual instinct enters into children at the age of puberty…a child has sexual instincts and activities from the first…’* Almost a hundred years later Paul Magrs’s novel, Strange Boy, which contains a scene where the hero and his friend explore their changing bodies, has proved controversial. But what kind of novel is it? Jonathan Douglas investigates.<!–break–>
David is a ten-year-old on a North East estate at the height of the glam ’70s. His parents have split up and he and his brother’s lives are divided between his parents’, parents’ partners’ and grandparents’ lives and homes. The pain and tension this causes deeply upsets David. These embittered households are matriarchal. His brassy Little Nana, a nightclub Shirley Bassey impersonator, rules the roost – her husband is a butcher by trade, however he is scarcely butcher by nature than his extravagant wife.
The title is ironic. It isn’t David, the boy narrator, who is strange, but it is the adult world surrounding him which is marked by weirdness: this is the world where the neighbour, the aptly named Maddy, paints raunchy icons of Mary Magdalene on wallpaper and posts them through the parish priest’s letter box; a world where David’s alienated parents vie for their children’s affections and scheme for their attention; a ’70s culture so bizarre that the novel concludes with a glossary to guide the reader through aberrations such as the film Xanadu, in which the muse Terpsichore descends to earth (in the form of Olivia Newton-John) to attend the opening of a roller-disco.
David doesn’t fit in at school. At the start of the book he has a sexual experience with his friend John and throughout the book he has an appalled fascination for penises. David feels different. He believes that he has special powers like his comic book heroes. This belief allows him to cope with not fitting in. At times his powers appear to be an illusionary psychological defence, but he works two wonders with them: he inspires aging Dutch Anna to win a supermarket trolley dash by piling her basket high with Advocaat, and he heals John’s bruises after he has been beaten up. His powers are as ambiguous and as confused as his apparently amazing memories. With the perspective of a Tristram Shandy he seems to remember his own birth and conception, but he begins to wonder if these memories are the product of having been told the events as stories.
The stories told by his mother and grandmothers thrill David. The novel feels most directly autobiographical when, entranced by the power of stories and after hearing about the charmed life of a local successful Catherine Cookson type of writer, David explains ‘at five, six, seven years old, I was thinking that a writer’s life seemed quite a good idea.’
As the novel’s narrator, David’s character emerges through his own voice. This is not a convincing voice of a ten-year-old, but a more complex and maturely reflective voice. This strengthens the autobiographical feel of the writing. David simultaneously looks forward to and fears adulthood. He revels in being talked to by adults as if his opinions matter and is excited by his influence when his revelations impact on people’s lives. But he dreads aspects of maturing. He has an epiphany when he watches his dad shave: ‘And suddenly I realise, I don’t know how, that shaving – this terrible, boring, dangerous thing that you have to do – is going to be something I’ll never learn to do properly.’
So does the sexual experimentation with John mean that David will grow up to be gay? At the beginning of the story David talks about his super heroes’ ‘origin stories’, the explanations for where their powers and heroic identities come from. Is this his gay ‘origin story’? One reviewer has suggested that ‘Queer Boy’ would be a fitting title. This really seems to be missing the point. What matters for David’s future is that he begins to enjoy the stability which will allow him to enjoy the strangeness of the world, and his own difference. Having said that, you do have to wonder about a boy who notices that his teacher has a Barbara Streisand hairdo…
At the end of the novel David confronts his father: ‘Sometimes you grown-ups are just…like, weird. Most of the time you carry on like mad people.’ David is not strange, he is different. For David ‘we’re all in different worlds’. Being different does not make life easy but it can make it wonderful.
Jonathan Douglas is Advisor for Youth and School Libraries at the Chartered Institute of Library Information Professionals (CILIP).
* S Freud, Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1910), in SE, vol.11, London: Hogarth Press, 1978.