I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.
I first heard about Alexis Hall’s Glitterland from one of my friends on Twitter–and it wasn’t a positive recommendation, either. I requested and downloaded it because it looked like it was going to be ridiculous and possibly terrible and I am not a very nice person sometimes.
And then I started reading it–and realized that my initial assessment of the book was completely and totally wrong and considering the themes that run through the book, the fact that I made a snap judgement about the book is deeply ironic. Also, I owe Hall an apology for jumping to such a conclusion.
In my defense, the cover and the blurb don’t do the book many favors. Here’s the blurb:
Once the golden boy of the English literary scene, now a clinically depressed writer of pulp crime fiction, Ash Winters has given up on love, hope, happiness, and—most of all—himself. He lives his life between the cycles of his illness, haunted by the ghosts of other people’s expectations.
Then a chance encounter at a stag party throws him into the arms of Essex boy Darian Taylor, an aspiring model who lives in a world of hair gel, fake tans, and fashion shows. By his own admission, Darian isn’t the crispest lettuce in the fridge, but he cooks a mean cottage pie and makes Ash laugh, reminding him of what it’s like to step beyond the boundaries of anxiety.
But Ash has been living in his own shadow for so long that he can’t see past the glitter to the light. Can a man who doesn’t trust himself ever trust in happiness? And how can a man who doesn’t believe in happiness ever fight for his own?
And the cover–I assume this is supposed to be Ash, as the model isn’t orange (the book is extremely clear about Darian’s orangeness, although maybe English orangeness isn’t as extreme as American orangeness?):
While this is being marketed as a romance and even though the plot more or less follows a typical romance plot, the underpinnings of this story are not romantic. This is a claustrophobic and unflinching character study of a man who is not particularly sympathetic and who is often utterly unlikable. But he’s always compelling.
And the writing is simply top-notch. That was the first thing I noticed about this book. I found myself highlighting so many sentences and phrases while Ash struggled to not be an insufferable asshole to everyone around him. This book has graphic references to suicide attempts and other self-harm, including cutting.
On that insufferable assholery of Ash’s: the fact that he has a mental illness is separate and the text makes it clear that while Ash does have some pretty serious problems, his assholery is entirely self-inflicted. His mental illness is never used as an excuse or reason for his poor treatment of others. I found his descriptions of his mental illness evocative and, within my limited experience with depression, accurate (Ash is not strictly a depressive; he has bipolar disorder and anxiety and was institutionalized for a while due to a psychotic break):
In all these years, this is all I have learned: Depression simply is. It has no beginning and no end, no boundaries and no world outside itself. It is the first, the last, the only, the alpha and the omega. Memories of better times die upon its desolate shores. Voices drown in its seas. The mind becomes its own prisoner.
This is the first passage I highlighted in this book and it’s the one that made me realize that I’d made a terrible mistake with my initial assessment. The book is told in an uncompromising first person point of view–and that’s the only point of view that would work for this story. The only way the reader is going to want to root for Ash is to be Ash–any other point of view would be too distancing.
And oh, some of the imagery (trigger warning: description of cutting):
And then I remembered: the sharp silver nothing of the knife as it glided down my forearm like a tall ship with a scarlet wake.
I know for some readers, this kind of prose is a bit too much but I’d much rather read this than endless descriptions of the hero’s broad chest, majestic mane of hair and the heroine’s slender curves and how her mouth that was just a little too wide to be fashionable (I always think that this makes them look a little bit like frogs and not like Julia Roberts, which I think is what the intent is).
What I’m mystified by is why this book is being marketed as a romance. Well, I know why–because marketing–but it’s not really a romance. Generally in a romance, both characters have an emotional journey to make. In this novel, only the point of view character, Ash, makes such a journey–and at the end, he makes a literal journey, too, to Darian’s home (which he shares with his Nanny Dot and a Union Jack onesie), to beg forgiveness for being a complete and total wanker.
So no journey. There is absolutely a romantic element but there’s an interiority to this story, an intimacy with Ash that precludes this from being a romance. The sense of time is all muddled–when Ash is more lucid and together we have a better sense of the time passing than when he’s not. It lends the whole thing an otherworldly quality that I found really interesting–but again, which other readers may find off-putting (I tend to find the meet/marry/HEA in two weeks in many romance off-putting).
Hall also uses class in a really interesting way–some folks have mentioned that they found Darian’s accent to be difficult or distracting; I didn’t. It served to underscore the vast gulf between him and Ash in a way that his orangeness and fondness for garish clothing didn’t. Ash constantly jumps to conclusions about not only Darian but everyone else as well and a good deal of the plot revolves around Ash being a jerk and apologizing and then doing it again. This may be frustrating for some people who are reading this as a romance because the book is pretty much one giant Big Misunderstanding.
Darian, in contrast, is everything Ash isn’t. In addition to being orange and an aspiring model, he also isn’t shy about telling Ash what he wants and demanding that Ash respect him. Despite his cartoonish appearance, he is a real and genuine character and is a great foil for Ash.
What this book reminded me of, at an almost twenty year remove, is a couple of the books I read in my gay/lesbian literature class that I took in college (fun fact: the class I took was the one of the first ever offered by a public university in the state of Michigan), specifically Dale Peck’s Martin and John and Geoff Ryman’s Was. There’s a elegiac feel to Glitterland that reminded me of parts of these books, both of which came out of the HIV and AIDS ravaged communities of the 1980’s. An eternal reaching but never quite attaining. I hope, for Ash and Darian’s sake, that they are able to attain their happily ever after (the book ends firmly on a happy for now note).
This is one of the most unusual and interesting books I’ve read this year and if your tastes are congruent to mine, I think it’ll be worth your time. It’s not a perfect book–it’s a bit studied in places and Ash really is an unsympathetic asshole throughout a lot of it–but I enjoyed it for what it was and I’m looking forward to reading what Hall writes in the future.