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Venus as a Boy by Luke Sutherland


Rating: (Read only if your interest is strong)


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Luke Sutherland’s prior books have been praised in the U.K., and one, Jelly Roll, was shortlisted for the Whitbread. His latest book, Venus as a Boy, has been published in the U.S. Having read this book, I can’t see what the fuss is about. Venus as a Boy is a strange tale of a boy from the Orkney Islands and the love he brings to those he meets. While there are passages of excellent writing, the novel as a whole was disappointing because of the disconnected episodes of drugs, sex and alienation. Here’s an excerpt from pp. 17-21:


School could be good, but it was usually very bad. I learned how to forge my mum’s signature. Sick notes galore. Truant officers came round once, but nothing happened except I got wise to them. I loved learning. All of that. But I skived because there were boys at school who wanted to kill me and the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the English. They made me drink washing-up liquid, cooking oil and pish. They almost blinded me with fly spray. Most of my so-called mates were just shitty little two-faced bastards. One minute you’re in, next, with the pressure on, it’s poof this, cunt that.


My best friends were the losers and almost all the girls. I won’t name them cos they might be embar­rassed by what I’ve become. But if this gets out to any of you, you know who you are, and I want you to know I have never stopped loving you.


I did most of my learning at home. Everything I needed was there anyway: rooms full of books, tons of tapes, the bric-a-brac in my dad’s shed. I built all kinds of shit: . . . a litter-picker, a crossbow, a go­kart with a wind-sail, even a telescope. Who knows, maybe if I hadn’t wound up sucking cocks, I might be out there with that guy what is it? Trevor some­thing, who invented the clockwork radio. Any time I see him on TV, I just burst into tears. He made the thing not for the money, but so starving African kids could tune into Madonna and Aerosmith. Every time he crops up with that benign, slightly godlike look, my head fills with pictures of these kids, all smiles and miracle talk, dreams come true kind of thing, and I disintegrate. Packaging, though, eh? He’s probably a cunt who gets his kicks dipping his wick in kidnapped fanny and biting the heads off seal pups.


The girl I got on with best was Finola. My first and maybe only real soulmate. She was a year younger. Looked like a Russian doll. We were never apart whenever I put in an appearance at school. Spent our days there reading and playing. I got stick from the boys for hanging out with her, but the girls left us alone mostly. After school, at weekends or any days we skived, we hung out at her house which was about a mile away from mine and massive. She ran the show though. Her dad had blown it years ago and her mum was ill so Finola organised everything: cooking, cleaning, shopping. . . Only-children and damaged family. What can I say? We were two of a kind.


Finola’s mum was a Czechoslovakian countess, be­lieve it or not. She’d come to Britain after a big romance bust-up and got work in musicals in the West End of London, which is where she met Finola’s dad. He was a wank by all accounts. When he found out Eva that’s her name and the one she always made me call her, none of this Mrs Liskova or Auntie Ev shite when he found out she was pregnant with Finola, he went mental and tried to make her get an abortion. Bastard got violent, so Eva ran away again, to Orkney this time, which is where Finola was born. Finola bit of a Celtic name for Czech nobility, but her mum just wanted her to fit in. It means white shoulder.


Depression kept Eva in bed; a big four-poster that was more like a coffin, where she spent her days rotting away. Her room smelled sort of like . . . I don’t know . . . the beach in the Hope, where the burn ran into the sea. Like. . . shit and damp. But it was one of those things you didn’t clock at that age. It was just a smell that made her seem more striking. The walls were peeling and the floors were crawling, but she was one of a kind. We sat with her lots. Listened to her gossip about what East European royals got up to back in the day. Even feeble like she was, she made an effort. Treated us like we were no different from her. Not like adults, because we wer­en’t, but like equals.


Those days, my God, those days: stories by fire and candlelight during winter power cuts, all three of us in Eva’s bed trying to keep warm, and yes, the wind howling outside. Those days, pure proof of how useless and grey and ordinary and mean and just shite my own folks were.


That same winter, Finola and me learned how to fly. Eva spun us a tale one night about how she escaped from a castle in the Carpathian Mountains. Her mum and dad wanted her to marry some Hungarian count, but she didn’t want to, and so they ended up forcing her. The whole family went out to the count’s castle for the wedding and they pretty much locked Eva in a tower so she couldn’t escape. The night before the wedding there’s a gale. Eva puts on her bridal gown and no joke, jumps out the window. Dress made a kite out of her. All she had to do was hold on to the hems and off she flew. The way she told it, she literally tiptoed across treetops all the way back to Prague.


We believed her and waited for a gale. One week later it came. Finola’s first jump was from a fence post in a big blue skirt. She flew fifty feet. I thought: Regal blood and bones, she’s light, the wind likes her. But then when I tried it, I flew just as far and landed light as a feather. We went from fence posts to the roof of her house and from there to clifftops. Christmas Day, Finola in Eva’s wedding dress and me in a mock eighteenth-century ballgown Eva got in some West End musical, skydiving off Hoxa Head.



First day of the new term we had PE. Someone put drawing pins inside my shoes, so when we changed to go back to class I got stabbed in the feet. The sole of my left foot turned black. I had to be carried to Matron. She pulled all the pins, gave me a drink of orange juice and drove me home. My dad did what he did best, went mental, so I limped across the fields to Eva’s house and sat with her until Finola came home.


I stayed the night. The three of us in Eva’s bed as ever. In the morning on our way out, Finola said if we made a dress big enough she, me and Eva could all squeeze into it and fly back to Czechoslovakia, so I’d be away from the boys at school, from my dad, and Eva would get better because she’d be back where she belonged. And so that’s what we began to do.


I stole clothes from home, blankets and sheets, any­thing sewable. Finola had reams of material, exotic cloth from all over the world. It took ages but we were after real wings. I told her about the mountain­top trip with my dad the calm and loveliness and feeling so close to the roof of the universe and she goes: You’ll feel right at home, then. My mum talks about Prague in the same way.


There was a story in one of the books in my dad’s library about the MacLeods, I think, of Skye, and this ancient fairy flag they kept locked away in a box and unfurled in times of trouble. The dress we were making was like that. A magic carpet. Our way out of Orkney.

Readers who enjoy exploring first time authors should try getting through Venus as a Boy. Others who have read the excerpt and think there’s something here, should also give Venus as a Boy a try. All others should take a pass.

Steve Hopkins, June 25, 2004


ă 2004 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the July 2004 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: as a Boy.htm


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