Joe is 17, a gifted artist and a brilliant older brother to 12-year-old Finn. They live with their Ma and Da in a Dublin tower block called Bojaxhiu or ‘the Jax’. It’s not an easy place to be a kid, especially when your father, Frank, is the muscle for the notorious gang leader Dessie ‘The Badger’ Murphy. But whether it’s daytrips to the beach or drawing secret sketches, Joe works hard to show Finn life beyond the battered concrete yard below their flat.
Joe is determined not to become like his Da. But when Finn falls ill, Joe finds his convictions harder to cling to. With his father now in prison, his mother submerged in her grief, and his relationships with friends and classmates crumbling, Joe has to figure out how to survive without becoming what the world around him expects him to be.
I’d seen so many brilliant things about this book that pre-ordering it was a no-brainer, and once it arrived, I couldn’t resist diving in almost straightaway. I’m so glad I did, as Boys Don’t Cry is such a special book – and yes, you will need plentiful tissues.
The chapters alternate between the two brothers, Joe and Finn, and it was a matter of pages before I realised I had taken both of them into my heart. There is a special kind of magical quality to writing that can create fictional characters who seem absolutely real – it doesn’t happen all that often, and it is such a thrill and a gift. Fíona Scarlett’s book is absolutely given over to the two voices of the boys, in a generous and full-hearted way, allowing their utterly authentic first person narratives to carry the story along without authorial intrusion (this makes it sound like I don’t know that she wrote it – what I MEAN is that you can completely believe in the two characters as real people as you immerse yourself in their individual voices!)
The threat of heartbreak is present from the beginning, and I was wet-eyed long before the full-on sobbing episode I had towards the end of the book. But it never feels as if Scarlett is playing with our emotions or going for ‘tragic effect’ – my growing sadness as I read came out of a genuine affection for the boys, who, as well as being authentic and funny and touching, are also nicely contrasted, so that Finn’s innocence and naivety finds its opposite in Joe’s disillusionment about the future and the hopelessness that threatens to overwhelm him when he tries to imagine forging a different path from the one that seems laid out for him.
There are echoes here, for me, of What Beauty There Is by Cory Anderson, which also deals with a beautiful sibling bond, and of David Joy’s Where All Light Tends To Go, a story in which a teenage boy faces similar struggles to Joe in his attempts to escape the bonds of his family history. The difference here is in the location – Boys Don’t Cry is absolutely rooted in its gritty Dublin setting, and every sentence shimmers with authenticity and realism. I don’t do audiobooks, but I can imagine this would be a fantastic one to listen to – as it was, I heard the voices clearly in my head and loved every line of it.
This isn’t a long book, but it doesn’t need to be – it packs more punch than novels twice its length. Moving without being sentimental, soft and harsh all at once, Boys Don’t Cry is an incredible debut novel, and I am SO excited to see what Fíona Scarlett produces next. In the meantime, Finn and Joe, and Annie and Sabine, too, for that matter, are going to stay with me for a very, very long time, and I am grateful to have been gifted their presence.
Boys Don’t Cry by Fíona Scarlett is published by Faber & Faber and is available to purchase here.