Every now and then I come across a novel which resonates so powerfully with me that it leaves me shaking by the time I finally reach The End. The first time this happened was when I was in high school and that book was Lord of the Flies. Now, more than forty years later, it has happened again, this time with an Australian novel with characters and settings and events which quite eerily mimic my own upbringing, along with that of so many young men who have grown up as gay in rural Australia.
That novel is Invisible Boys by Holden Sheppard, a Young Adult (YA) book first published in 2019.
In part it is this novel which became the catalyst for my wanting to try and help spread the message to Australia’s gay rural youth that there are others who have experienced what you are going through right now or have experienced in the past. You are not alone and hopefully by reading, seeing or hearing of similar experiences you may be able to better negotiate the life you were meant to live.
Invisible Boys is an impressive, yet at times confronting story which essentially tells the story of three adolescent boys growing up in a conservative town in Western Australia, their world, their families, their friendships, their community and the weight of expectation upon them. As they attempt to negotiate that time in their lives when young men are becoming aware of their sexuality and everything that comes with this, each of them struggles, in their own way, with all the emotions this entails; curiosity, fear, anxiety, hopes, denial, doubts, grief, secrets, betrayals.
These lads, their families and their friends are typical of those you will find in any Australian town. We have the jock, the leader of the pack, star sportsman, yet terrified at the prospect he may be homosexual. The nerd, a good Catholic boy, yet seen as an abomination by his father. And then there is the musician, who plays grunge, paints his nails and is confident within himself, desperately wants sex with men, but also much more than that.
This is a book that takes the reader on a rollercoaster of a ride as our three main characters traverse a world that is new to them and each of them battles with their own inner demons. Some readers may be shocked by the depictions of male sex, images of illicit meetings after dark and fumbling first sexual experiences, but this is counterbalanced by insights into a world unfamiliar to the average citizen, coupled with beautifully written expressions of love and friendship.
Holden Sheppard brings an authenticity to the characters thanks to their world being the same world in which he grew up. There is a part of him in each of the main characters, built on his own experiences in growing up as a straight boy even while realising he was gay; growing up while keeping his real-self invisible.
In a world where all too often people say what others simply want to hear, Sheppard is a breath of fresh air. He tells it like it is, no holds-barred, and the result is a refreshingly honest portrayal of discovery, not unlike that which so many of us have had to live through.
Most of us never had the advantage of having someone show us the way as we fumbled our way through the early years of our youth, learning about sex and sexuality and life and love. Sadly, not all of us made it to the other side unscathed, but at least those who are experiencing the highs and lows of discovery right now can, through the lessons offered by way of stories such as this, have the chance to emerge whole, knowing what it means to be themselves and to be accepted for who you are.
Upon checking out the author’s website (https://www.holdensheppard.com/) I was quite pleased to see that Sheppard has other works available, which I am looking forward to delving into as well. An interesting aside is that Invisible Boys is also set to be developed as a ten-part series for television, which I can already see will be ground-breaking.
Invisible Boys is a novel I strongly recommend.