VENUS AS A BOY by Luke Sutherland (Bloomsbury), 160 pages, $24.95 cloth. Rating: NN Rating: NN
A man is turning to gold in a room in Soho. He wants Luke Sutherland, the author of Venus As A Boy, to tell the story of how he came to be slowly changing from human to precious metal.
The narrator, Desiree, once a pretty, fey boy growing up on the Orkneys, spent his childhood getting beaten up, setting fire to things and joining the other hellions who shouted racist taunts at the small black kid whose family had just moved into town.
That child was Sutherland, the author, who becomes a side-character in his own book. As a teenager, Desiree discovers his propensity for making lovers of both sexes "see angels," quite literally. A lyrical story of erotic adventures, sexual economics, transition and heartbreak ensues.
Luke Sutherland's trademark blending of the impossible with the gritty has garnered him quite a following for novels such as Jelly Roll, which was shortlisted for the 1999 Whitbread Award. Venus As A Boy fits his history. It's both contemporary and mythical, and ambitious as well.
But magic realism is difficult to do well, and requires a writer capable of tempting us to suspend our disbelief. He wasn't successful with me. The elements of myth he incorporates into this narrative come off as devices to stitch together implausible plot points instead of enriching the offbeat characters that inhabit the story.
Exposing the beauty in so-called grim realities is very au courant in literature these days, but creating outlaw characters in order to gawk at them rings hollow and is at times offensive.
Would a pimp actually care enough to travel to a remote island to find a runaway hooker? Would a skinhead be bashing in the heads of fags one day and falling in love with a transsexual the very next? Could someone really be bullied into changing sex when he or she doesn't want to?
I can forgive each of these far-reaching plot points on its own, but too many kept me second-guessing the authenticity of the narrator's voice.
Sutherland is brave enough to take chances and can craft a romantic page-turner. But that's not enough.