Mysterious Skin - Scott Heim
Put aside a day to read this, because once you start, you wonít want to put it down. This might be the most controversial book weíve reviewed so far, and Iím intrigued that itís been selected from all the gay books available to be turned into a movie. I wonder if theyíll gloss over the most controversial parts. I canít see America, as it is at the moment, allowing the subtleties of this story to be filmed.
The book is told in the first person by a number of interchanging characters: Brian, his sister Debs, Neil and his friend EricÖ. Each person narrates the action from their point of view and this creates dense and satisfying character studies, as each tells something or sees something the others donít or canít.
The plot centres around Brian and 5 missing hours in his life. Aged 8, he is discovered by his sister bloodied, dirty and almost catatonic, hiding in the basement, unable to recall where he has been since he left for a little league game earlier that night.
Gradually, Brian comes to believe heís been abducted by aliens a belief that grows as he does, fuelled by an almost obsessive interest in unexplained phenomenon of all kinds. Geeky, lacking friends, Brian suffers from nosebleeds, blackouts and bed-wetting, all signs he comes to learn of abductees.
Of course, there is another cause for all these, too. One that Brian canít even begin to face, until he starts to remember that another boy was there when his ďabductionĒ happened. His search for this other boy leads him to Neil.
Neilís narration also begins at about the time of Brianís fateful baseball game. Product of a broken home, Neil is older than his 9 years, precocious in sexual matters (thereís a disturbing scene where he watches his mother having sex with her boyfriend on a swing set). What I particularly liked about this book is its honesty. Sure, Neilís mother isnít a paragon of virtue, but sheís not bad either. The world isnít black and white, and good people can do bad things. Sheís very largely responsible for what happens to Neil, but she remains a very sympathetic character despite these faults.
And you do need to have a very open mind to read this book. If youíre one of the people who has sent me death threats for my stories, then Iíd tactfully like to suggest you stay well clear of this one! The book describes the relationship between 9-year-old Neil and the little league coach, and is very ambiguous about whether this is abuse or not. Neil does not believe it is. He adores the coach, loves being the centre of his world, enjoys the sex and the power he has over him. He looks back his whole life to that summer as something very special, just for him.
Of course, by now, youíve got that Brianís abduction and Neilís sex with the coach are related. How the boys, now grown to young men, play out the discovery of the truth is what makes this book so fascinating and hard to put down.
If youíre already ranting and raving that all sex with children is automatically abuse, and that the author should burn in hellÖ I should too for reviewing the bookÖ etc, yawn, then you will miss a wonderful, subtle novel. Just because Neil doesnít think what happened to him was abuse, just because he enjoyed it and missed it when it was over, doesnít mean that his version of the story is the truth. We, as readers, are able to view Neilís story with much greater clarity than he canówe have Brianís perceptions of events to weigh and judge against Neilís.
Neilís memories of that perfect summer with the coach come tumbling down like a house of cards one night in a bathroom in New York.
The stage is set at last for him to meet Brian.
Donít miss this one. Read it before the film comes out because I genuinely donít believe any American studio is going to do this book justice.†
I donít like to give too much information on a story but this is a case where foreknowledge will decide whether this is something you want to read.† A powerful novel, moving and profound, but also upsetting, shocking and disturbing, with writing so realistic I had to remind myself itís fiction. I needed to stop a few times because it overwhelmed me.† I cried more than once.†
Itís uncomfortably but necessarily explicit.† Thereís non-consensual sex between an adult and boys entrusted to his care only 8 years old.† It left images in my head I really donít want that Iíll never forget.†
No parent will read it without wanting to wrap their children in cotton wool and not let them out until theyíre fully grown.† Paedophilic hysteria and media witch hunts are something weíve become familiar with, but for too long child abuse was a totally taboo subject.† Not because abuse didnít happen. One of the most troubling aspects of the story for me was the role of parents who mustíve had an idea something was going on.† These are damaged children.† People often know more than they acknowledge even to themselves, easier to deny what we donít want to believe.
We are now more aware so itís more difficult for paedophiles to operate.† This doesnít help adults abused as children. Like the boys in this story about how repercussions from a single incident shape an entire life, and the different ways children cope with abuse.
One character is innocent but the other sexualised beyond his years, a boy who knows heís attracted to men.† Brian Lackeyís family isnít apple pie wholesome but thereís stability and normality in his life Neil McCormack has never known with his slutty, alcoholic mother.† Brianís father has violent rages and canít connect with a son who fails to meet expectations, though heís close to his mother and older sister.† Neil never knew his dead father but has a loving relationship with his feckless mother.
One evening when heís 8 Brian loses 5 hours, between the start of a baseball game and coming to in the crawlspace under his house near midnight.† Later that summer his family witnesses a UFO in their small Kansas town and Brian becomes convinced heís found the explanation for what happened to him.† Meanwhile tough young tearaway Neil finds love and guidance from the first man ever to make him feel wanted and respected.†
Or so Neil convinces himself, until Brian re-enters his life through lovelorn Eric, who canít understand why the teenage hustler isnít interested in boys his own age.† Brian needs Neil to make sense of dreams he now understands are memories, from that long ago summer.† The self-protective cover shielding them from the truth is removed and finally both boys confront what really happened.
Words can hurt like barbs against the skin and this book has that power.† As an explanation for alien abduction itís about the most convincing Iíve ever encountered.† But itís Neil the gay character who really got under my skin.† Itís the strength of this book that it makes clear the distinction between paedophilia and homosexuality, which overcame concerns I initially had about reviewing the book on a website dedicated to gay lit.† The way Neil unknowingly colludes with the coach, confusing abuse thatís all about power and gratification with love, then repeating the pattern, means he canít recognise the real thing when itís offered.† Damage that sadly appears to be unfixable: the real horror of child abuse.† Whereas with Brian you feel heís managed a healing process that will enable him to move on.† Thereís a perception somehow gay kids must be less damaged somehow when abused by older men, or itís the abuse thatís Ďmadeí them gay.
Heim deals with complex and controversial issues, difficult emotions, things weíd rather not think about, with compassion and understanding, in a style both brutally honest and poetic.† Itís horribly believable, haunting and tragic, heart-breaking, but also beautiful, like Jim Grimsleyís DREAM BOY.† I canít recommend this book too highly.† If you can take its difficult subject matter I think youíll agree itís one of the best books youíll ever read.
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