Venus as a Boy, by Luke Sutherland
Sex and violence on the Orkney islands
Wednesday 21 April 2004
There will be many admirers of Venus as a Boy, but it is safe to say that the Orkney Tourist Board will not be among them. The first half of Luke Sutherland's novel takes place on South Ronaldsay, an island of 800 people; and, although the combination of "land and sea and silence" is beautiful, the character of its inhabitants is not.
Sutherland, like his protagonist, grew up on the island, and that connection is the premise for the novel. He is cornered by Pascal, a wasted young man at a concert, who requests a meeting on behalf of his friend Desiree. Sutherland rebuffs him but receives a bequest from Desiree, who has since died, including photographs and fragments of an autobiography.
Although never actually mentioned by name, Sutherland - as a rare black presence in Orkney - plays a part in it. Sutherland then disappears from his own narrative in favour of Desiree's memoir.
Desiree still feels guilt, 20 years on, for the part he played in the racist taunting of Sutherland as a boy. Siding with the bigots takes the pressure off him as an oddball and suspected "pouf". The violence on the island is palpable. Desiree's best friend, Finola, is assaulted and raped. On Hallowe'en the boys drive cars into the sea, slaughter cattle, and burn down houses with people inside.
Small wonder that, following a failed affair, Desiree escapes to the mainland. Although she breaks his heart, his lover Tracey confirms that he has a rare sexual talent when he spurs her to multiple orgasms and angelic visions.
For the next 20 years, he hones his skills on partners of both sexes. In particular, he teaches savage heterosexual men that there is a loving alternative, whether it be Snowman, the sous-chef at a Highlands hotel, or Pascal, a 19-year-old skinhead.
Although he claims that "for my sexual orientation, I haven't any", Desiree is forced to adopt a female persona and take the hormones that will ultimately kill him by Radu, a Romanian taxi-driver and pimp.
Having been nicknamed Cupid by Tracey, he now graduates to the role of Venus. Before his death, he undergoes a strange transformation in which his skin turns to gold. While he wonders if it is a kind of reward for "trying to please other people", readers of a less romantic disposition might see it as symbolic of the mercenary sex in which he is engaged.
Venus as a Boy is short, intense and crackling with streetwise energy. It is, however, highly reminiscent of Patrick McCabe's Breakfast on Pluto, another first-person narrative in which a young man escapes to the big city, becomes a transvestite prostitute and writes his memoirs.
The comparison does not work in Sutherland's favour. Yet, although he lacks McCabe's psychological depth and linguistic virtuosity, his writing is powerful, astute and full of promise.
The reviewer's short story collection, 'Good Clean Fun', appears from Maia Press in May
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