Boys Don’t Cry

Fiona Scarlett

Published by Faber 22 April 2021

256pp, hardback, £12.99

Reviewed by Alison Burns

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Seventeen-year-old Joe O’Reilly lives in a Dublin tower block with his Ma (Annie) and Da (Frank) and his 12-year-old brother, Finn.  Da is a violent man; everyone is scared of him.  Ma is long-suffering, tough, and the much-loved barmaid at The Tavern, which is the HQ of a local gang, run by ruthless Dessie Murphy, who has a hold over Da.  Joe, a gifted artist, has won a scholarship to the local private school but feels bitterly the divide between that privileged world of effortless belonging and the landscape he comes from, ‘this sea of concrete and steel, broken glass and destruction’.

Narrated in alternate chapters by the two brothers, Fiona Scarlett’s heartbreaking novel tells the story of what happens when Finn falls ill and Da is arrested for attempted murder.  Early on, we understand that Finn has died: his narration is, unlike Susie Salmon’s in Alice Sebold’s acclaimed novel The Lovely Bones, both posthumous and real-time, which has the effect of making Finn seem incredibly alive.  He lives through his own fatal illness as something he desperately does not want to inflict on his beloved family.

Da’s imprisonment (for a crime connected to Murphy), Finn’s mortality and Ma’s mounting distress combine to turn Joe into a walking time-bomb of anger and loss.  When he learns that his best friend from the towers, Sabine, has a debt to repay, he takes it upon himself to clear it, not knowing that in their world a debt is never cleared.  Sabine, Annie and Frank all try to stop Joe from getting entangled in Murphy’s web, but the only thing that matters to Joe is that Finn is dying.

The great strength of this novel is Scarlett’s understanding of both the bleakness and the love in the world of these young people.  Finn’s chapters show a child seeking to protect his family while also trying to grasp what is happening to his body.  Joe’s show the courage, loyalty and rage of a young man who experiences directly the collateral damage of gang activity.  This impressive first novel has the impact and ring of authenticity we associate with Ken Loach’s films: a screen adaptation would be something to look forward to.

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