Boys Don’t Cry is the brilliant and brave debut novel by Fiona Scarlet; inspired in part by her late father, who grew up in working-class, inner-city Dublin, and in part by a paediatric palliative care doctor who Tweeted about a conversation he had with his young patients about what they would miss most when they died.
Be warned, this is a book for which you’ll need at least one box of tissues handy; and be prepared to stay put until you have turned the last of its relatively short number of pages (< 200), because this book simply cannot be put down.
Set in inner-city Dublin, the author presents us with an instantly gripping tale of love, grief, poverty, crime, disadvantage, bias, violence and the mercilessly familiar consequences of drug abuse.
This is a heartbreakingly credible story of two young brothers, Joe (17) and Finn (12); their tough-man ‘Da’, Frank; their devoted, pint-pulling ‘Ma’, Annie, and the extraordinarily difficult circumstances of their lives. With the death of Finn from cancer thrown in you might be forgiven for thinking that this is not a mix of themes designed to enthral, but enthral it does.
Narrated alternately by both boys, we discover in the opening chapters that Finn has already died. That knowledge does nothing to diminish the course of the story; it just makes it more poignant and agonising to read. Ironically, it is Finn’s reflections that provide the well placed and welcome humour throughout the book, epitomising the pleasant, easy-going nature for which he is loved.
The boys’ stories switch between the past and present and are relayed against the backdrop of a poverty burdened, crime laden society from which there is little reprieve. They live in one of four high-rise blocks of flats that have seen better days (if they ever looked good) and which, according to Joe, were “named after someone who inspired change, hoping that the names would rub off on the dossing sponging bastards who existed there”. The boys’ block is called ‘Bojaxhiu’ which was Mother Teresa’s surname and it is affectionately, and perhaps appropriately, referred to locally as ‘The Jax’.
The Da, who is heavily involved with the local drug and associated crime scene, is already incarcerated when we meet him. Somehow, despite the lifestyle he’s chosen and his propensity for violence, he is not portrayed as having completely failed to demonstrate some semblance of love for his sons – evidence of that confusing juxtaposition between affection and violence that so often characterises abusive behaviours. He strongly discourages the boys from following in his footsteps but, in truth, his legacy is inescapable.
Curiously, before Finn’s diagnosis of blood cancer, both boys exhibit a keen interest in school and in bettering themselves. Joe’s aptitude for art has, in fact, earned him a scholarship to the ‘posh’ secondary school, something his adored younger brother is enormously proud of. But the chasm between Joe’s background and that of the other students is searingly evident – to Joe most of all – and, while it is not unreasonable to believe that the trajectory of his life can change, he doesn’t really seem to be at ease in either of his worlds.
Finn’s diagnosis, however, rocks any modicum of hope there might have been. Even Da’s macho mantra of ‘boys don’t cry’ is tested. The cruel fate arbitrarily imposed on the cheerful, self-deprecating, funny, likeable youngster breaks everyone, including the reader! The assortment of emotions associated with such a sentence on one so young, and his family and friends, is expertly explored and delivered by the author. The shock, fear, hope, despair, hopeless resolve and abject grief are all extremely well illustrated and presented without gratuitousness.
We have seen many constructions in film, TV and fiction evidencing the vicious, miserable world of drugs and associated crime. Boys Don’t Cry doesn’t claim any revelatory insight or solutions in that regard. There isn’t any new angle on the ‘bad guys’ or the devastating destruction they cause. What’s different about Boys Don’t Cry is that the socio-economic mess is the background story. The real story is a brave, persuasive and resonating story of love, loss and courage.
‘Da’ claimed that ‘boys don’t cry’ but I challenge anyone to get through this beautifully crafted, unpretentious, charming book without sobbing uncontrollably, for at least half of it, as I did.
(c) Angela Connaughton
Order your copy online here.