Frederick Smith reviews Holden Sheppard’s novel ‘Invisible Boys’ as among the literary jewels worthy of studying by young adults in schools. The voices of gay young people in the narrative are too powerful to be suppressed. But given its explicit sex and expletive contents, Smith asks can it be considered an acceptable text?
Holden Sheppard’s ‘Invisible Boys’ (Fremantle Press, 2019) is a young adult book that bravely explores the world of growing up gay in contemporary Australia. The realistic events and rawness of emotions may be a smack on the cheek for many who have been sheltered in the morals of heterosexuality as there are no pretentiousness in the depiction of same-sex attraction, identity crisis, family acceptance and social expectations. It definitely offers more than the usual depiction of those who are different. The characters take the skills of resilience authentically: it is definitely for life’s survival. The scope of looking at teenager’s wellbeing solely from the perspectives of heterosexuality is challenged. Young people’s sexualities are as diverse as anyone else. This award-winning book may appeal to many teenagers today.
The three male characters Charlie, Zeke and Hammer are year 10 students from a Catholic school in a Western Australian suburb who have to deal with the ethos of their school, family, friends, church and local community. They are a metonymy for those who endure bullying, exclusions, overlooked, doubted and demonised for being different. Like Charlie, there are those who are openly gay and have made themselves vulnerable to attacks and bullying. Like Zeke, there are those who are academically inclined who may also have come from other cultural backgrounds whose homosexual tendency is seen as unlikely or unexpected. Like Hammer, there are those who are sporty, muscular, straight-acting from a solid white ocker background whose discreet homosexuality becomes self-punishing. Strong representations of Australian idioms and life in the suburb are covered. This is Australia. These are Australian youth.
Humour is not to be discredited in this book because there is a lot of laughable moments. You will be surprised what a human can do and say especially when they are gay. The humour in the narrative don’t only counter the emotional events but they seriously make you think about the nature of things and the way we think to be usual or normal. Zeke illustrates this when his mother finds out what he views in his computer while his parents are away. Sometimes what we think as jokes are no longer jokes, but sometimes we hold on to jokes to minimise the impacts of serious things in life. Check out Charlie and how he mitigates this.
Sheppard’s narrative on the unfounded fear of the ‘Other’ definitely sits among the opus of texts where the feared character is given voice. Melina Marchetta has the Italian immigrants. Phillip Gwynne has the Aboriginal football player. Tim Burton has the person with hands made of scissors. Harper Lee has the accused black, Chinua Achebe has the colonised Africans, to name a few. This time, Holden Sheppard has gay teenagers to which many of our students may be able to connect or identify. The void is filled is the field of diversity. When inter-textualised with Macklemore’s ‘Same Love’ and evaluated with the premise ‘just because I am gay, it doesn’t mean I’m evil’, Sheppard’s book can beam with meaning.
The ethics of homosexuality is dealt with sophistication because of the authentic, multilayered and non-judgmental approach of the subject-matter. The family, church and school values and assumptions are questioned. Friendship, loving relationship and self-projections are explored. Mental health issues of suicide are dealt with sensitively. Amidst adversities, thoughts of self-destruction are mitigated. Optimism prevails especially through the imagery in the ending where youth in scooter becomes a symbol of a new beginning, a liberation. It will make a good resource for senior English students, offering a gateway for open discussion of tabooed topics in post legalised gay-marriage era.
The predominance of swear words in the dialogues and the presence of same-sex sex scenes in the plot will be the letdown for using this text in the classroom if set below the maturity of senior levels. However, as one engages well with the narrative, the rain of expletives may gradually become a river of understanding as the real concern goes deeper into the more pressing issues. When we are afforded with an immersion into the world of people’s experiences, and in reading such a convincing and hilarious narrative, our attention will leap beyond the accessibility of language and we become magnetised to the things that really matter, in this situation: identity, sexuality, growth, family, education and wellbeing. To use it for units in literature, in gender studies or as an alternative choice for any novel study unit, teachers may have to undergo few screening or permission stages.
The clever use of alternating points of view where each dominant character is given a chapter to narrate his perspective is a successful manipulation of text structure, highlighting the theme of the novel: stop ostracising those who we have yet to understand. This book confronts the society’s tendency to use the language ‘them’ to exclude, demonise and marginalise the different other. There’s a strong reminiscence to Atticus’ ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it’. When we know the person’s story, we naturally emphatise, and the ‘they’ are no longer othered.
Perceptions breed stereotypes, bringing judgements that can offend, hurt and kill. Charlie, Zeke and Hammer have lived with them. Sheppard’s characters communicate to the readers about adjusting and reflecting on life’s complexities and aspirations in becoming resilient, well-adjusted and effective young people today.
How to reference this article:
Smith, Frederick (2020) ‘Can ‘Invisible Boys’ Be Used in Schools?’, Sayaeducation.com, viewed this year