by Catherine Murphy
Where there are people there is love, where there is love there is romance—and where there is romance there’s an author taking notes. Queer romance has always been a part of the literary world, from Alice Walker to Alan Hollinghurst, Patricia Highsmith to Jeanette Winterson. If you want a brightly covered quick read, a quiet literary tome, or a huge best-selling novel with a bird on the front cover, your booksellers have you sorted in the diverse world of love.
As the shop windows are filled with displays of heart-shaped cards we see through the glass on our daily walks in isolation, our thoughts might turn to the magic of literary romance, to the fluttery feeling of reading our favourite characters fall in love, finding happiness in whatever shape that takes.
There are some wonderful new voices in queer literature as well as the well-loved classics. Here is a selection of new and not-so-new tales to fall in love with over the Valentine’s weekend.
Publishing this March, What Love Looks Like by Jarlath Gregory (O’Brien Press) is a fresh and well-written YA romance, a story of what it is to be a young gay man in Ireland today, with all the dating and the clubs and the apps and the clothes. The experiences of young adult life are set faithfully against Dublin’s gay scene. I loved the connection between the main character, Ben, and his best friends. The background of his supportive family is a delight, the honesty with which his mum and stepdad talk to him about sex and love, and support him through his process of looking for a partner. Ben is naive but he’s strong—from the beginning he refuses to back down to the local bully. He’s both likable and lovable. Without giving away the ending, I have to say this was one of my favourite happy-ever-afters and perfect for a Valentine’s read.
Exciting Times (W&N 2020) is a charming literary novel by Naoise Dolan. Heralded as the new Rooney, Dolan is really very much herself, writing from a place of queer identity that rings true. Whilst the plot is advertised as a love triangle, I found it to be more an exploration of queerness, a discovery of what it is to be attracted to someone, and a genuine story about emotions. A quiet read, it won’t tear you apart; as fits the genre, the characters are toxic, real and human, at times quite unpleasant—but the feelings are authentic. Dolan cuts through our political issues with a hard knife, with the skill of a literary writer. She leaves us with few conclusions in the story but the book isn’t about What Happened Next, it’s bigger than it looks. It’s about love.
From the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, Leah on the Offbeat (Harper Collins, 2018) by Becky Albertalli is a fabulous YA about a young woman discovering her bisexuality. Leah is the best friend character in the award winning Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda, but Offbeat is very much Leah’s book, and she needs no previous introduction. It’s the story I wish I’d read aged twelve, thirteen, (twenty-four). Filled with body-positivity, Leah is a great character, mouthy and confident and also able to admit when she’s wrong—eventually—with clear teen angst. Albertalli writes wonderfully, addressing the younger aspects of queer YA love in a way that brings sunshine to the soul.
Not all books about love are cheerful, and not all readers crave such joys. John Boyne rarely brings us the rosy sunset of a happy-ever-after in any of his stories but he writes love as a man whose heart has been broken and who has known what it is to truly care. In The Heart’s Invisible Furies (Doubleday, 2017) I yearned for Cyril to find happiness, but Boyne knows the power of love goes deeper than that.
At its core the book is about a man who suffers an unconditional and unrequited love for his best friend, Julian. The story starts at the very beginning and we feel Cyril’s pain as a child disconnected from his family, the discomfort of his teen years, of his growing feelings for Julian, and we follow the epic tale through his life, through love in all its forms. The novel draws the reader through the reality of loving, never avoiding the pain that tears the characters apart. There are times when I didn’t want to look between the lines, and by the end, I was wrung out. It’s easily one of the best books I’ve ever read about love.
In another well-loved bestseller, the Welsh author Sarah Waters brings us a story with an ending that’s happy enough to warm the cockles of her readers’ discerning hearts in Tipping the Velvet, a true queer classic from 1998. Everything Waters writes is layered; her craft is exceptional. For me, the real splendour of this book is the sense of queer family, and I will give nothing away of the plot other than to say if you haven’t read it, please do. It’s clever, interesting and funny, it’s awful and kind, and definitely romantic—and there’s a fair few corsets in it, too, for any fans of long laces. It’s as much a love story to Victorian London as between the characters, and it explores many different themes of gender, sexuality and sex, relishing in the historical setting.
The queer world is not all lesbian, gay or bisexual, of course. The wonderful thing about the true LGBTQ+ community is the mixture, including the T and the Q and the plus sign and all the variations that represent our community. It is exciting to see Own Voices books coming out, and it would be lovely to see more, especially more queer Irish authors. Looking for trans romances written by trans authors, for instance, the list of titles available is slim. When we celebrate one another in truth then we celebrate our differences as well as our similarities. The one true constant through human existence is love, and the more romantic diversity we can find in books, the more freedom we can reflect in the world. Stories belong to all of us.
Love always wins.
Catherine Murphy @scribblingink1