Book Review: Boy Erased

Boy Erased by Garrard Conley (2018). Glasgow: William Collins.

Courtesy CWs for spoilers, mention of harm and suicide, and Troye Sivan ‘acting’.

I loved the complex structure of this narrative and how it killed the usual shortcomings of first-person narration. There’s nothing superfluous or showy about it, which was a nice change after reading a string of fresh YA (Rainbow Rowell is not my friend). It’s constantly rolling ahead even when it’s falling back on small moments and attaching them to larger statements. I took great pleasure in seeing how Conley pulled everything together in a way that felt like double-guessing. Like searching. I found it both appropriate and effective for telling this story.

Of course, you’ll find a ton of one-star reviews discussing how these small moments dragged the narrative down into a drone. And, of course, I disagree with them all. The narrator acknowledges early that he recalls small details in an effort to distract himself from those horrors he couldn’t forget. How their distraction brings him comfort. He also acknowledges how he was forced to search these small moments through his childhood for some notion of rebellion, some sign that must have given him away earlier, some opportunity he missed that could have cured him of his same-sex attraction. He is desperate to satisfy people who demand he find the route of his sickness, and he sifts through these small details because his larger truths aren’t enough.

As for character development, I admit I found myself dangerously close to the narrator — perhaps sympathising too strongly with what he was feeling. On Goodreads I wrote ‘I’m starting to reciprocate the confusion of the protagonist. Their feeling of being lost or directionless, waiting for someone to mould me into something pure and useful. If this book isn’t careful, it will drive me to church.’ There were moments he could have given himself a happy ending had he not been afraid to take it, and I felt that was the same doubt of responsibility we all feel throughout our lives.

I got the impression that Conley wanted his readers to disagree with some of these doubts, however, which became clear to me once I realised I was yelling at the protagonist like he was every victim in a horror. For me, this one reaction highlighted how different the queer experience was for someone who clung to God. It also made me sympathise for the mother and how she felt obliged to ‘perform’ her role. She makes a moral inventory of her own shortcomings once the Love In Action pamphlet arrives, and I couldn’t stop myself blubbering like a bairn as she asked herself ‘what else does my child need?’ The answer was so far from what she believed a caring mother should do that she would never have gotten there without the threat of losing her son to suicide.

My biggest peeve is that I watched the movie first. Like the one-star reviewers, I can’t not mention it now that it’s ticking away in my brain. Unlike those reviewers, however, I’m going to run with the book because I feel it was more accessible as a narrative. Reading the text made me suspicious of how certain details were sensationalised for the movie. Suspicious when I found no Troye Sivan, the queer headliner in an otherwise straight-washed movie, getting deep outside Love In Action. Suspicious when I found no powerful Nicole Kidman rescuing her son. There were also a ton of aspects removed for the screen I felt were important for the narrative — specifically why the protagonist’s closest friends, the only characters of colour, weren’t seen as necessary when Boy Erased was adapted for the screen. These characters played such an important role in communicating who the protagonist was in spite of Love In Action that cutting them out felt like a kick to the stomach.

There were also aspects that felt rushed in the novel after seeing how they were adapted for the screen. It’s probably the one point I agree with the one-star reviewers on. As I’m yet to find evidence of how the ‘Truth’ developed following the memoir, I’m going to refrain from making any concrete judgements about the movie. I feel I’ve never experienced an adaptation so removed from its source, however, and with this in mind I highly recommend reading the book first so you can appreciate the subtlety in Conley’s writing.

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