Venus as a Boy by Luke Sutherland

Grit with magic tricks thrown in
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In a grimy flat in Soho, a transsexual drug-addict known as Désirée is gradually turning gold. This is the premise of Luke Sutherland's short, sharp third novel, which takes the alchemy of magical realism and applies it to the lead-coloured lives of rustics in the Orkneys and rent-boys in London.

In brief, Désirée kicks off as a beautiful loser on the Scottish island of South Ronaldsay, who stands by as the love of his life is raped by a gang of local louts, and subsequently becomes mates with the chief perpetrator; loses his virginity to a Danish sky-diver, discovers that he can bring people to orgasm with the lightest of touches, falls in love again, is abandoned, moves to Glasgow, then to London where he becomes a rentboy; falls in love again, gets rejected again, starts taking female hormones - and ultimately, as has already been mentioned, discovers he is turning gold.

If this all sounds like a bit of a muddle, that's because it is - but in a good way. The novel is deliberately styled as a footloose, picaresque search for love, identity and the meaning of life, undertaken by a character variously known as "Cupid", "c***", and the French word for "wanted". Transformation is a theme, whether it's the kind got from Class-A drugs, or from sex (let's admit it: Désirée's "gift" is rather an enviable one), or from HRT.

It's all carried off with typically insouciant style by a writer who, so far as one can tell, resembles his main character in almost no respect, apart from the fact that they both grew up in the Orkneys (Sutherland is, by his own account, teetotal and hetero). If the book has a flaw, it's that it doesn't quite manage to meet magical realism's challenge of harmoniously blending the realism and the magic, so that ultimately it reads like a gritty description of rural and urban life when you're at the bottom of the food chain, with a couple of magic tricks thrown in.

Désirée is clearly to be viewed as some kind of Christ-figure. The 33-year-old author is keen on this idea: that the Messiah's message was not that we should strive to be like him, but actually in some way to be him. "That was the one that knocked me on my back: self-knowledge is knowledge of the divine." It's an intriguing conceit, but one that is flirted with, as opposed to fully explored.

But the author can be forgiven almost anything for the way he conjures poetry out of desolation. Again and again in this novel we come upon lines that have a throw-away beauty, as if Sutherland had so many of them he didn't feel the need to make a big deal out of any particular one. If the subject matter appeals, I urge you to read Venus as a Boy. And you'll have the additional joy of seeing an author picture in which the author is actually smiling.