When Love Comes to Town by Tom Lennon (review copy) - Meet Neil Byrne - try-scorer on the rugby field, prizewinning student, one of the in-crowd at the disco, regular guy, gay. Presenting one face to the world and burying his true feelings in fantasy, Neil manages to keep his secret. But when fantasy isn't enough and he becomes caught up in the bizarre subculture of Dublin's gay nightlife, the pretence must end. It is the time for truth. The consequences are both hilarious and painful. Told with honesty, humour and originality, WHEN LOVE COMES TO TOWN brings a new type of hero to modern Irish fiction. From Amazon UK
I happened to find When Love Comes to Town by chance when browsing NetGalley. I wasn't looking for books to read for LGBTQ YA Month, but when I saw this listed, I had a look. Not only did it sound awesome, but it's also set in Ireland, which I just love. I was really eager to give it a go. Not only is When Love Comes to Town an awesome book, but more difficult to read than I expected.
Neil is an ordinary teenager; brilliant at rugby, brilliant in his classes, a number of friends he's pretty popular with, with everything going well for him. Or so everyone thinks, but Neil has a secret. He's gay, and has known it for years. He is constantly hearing comments from those around him about the sexuality of others, or jokes made at their expense, and knows things would change if they ever knew. But Neil is really struggling this year. All his friends are coupled up - the "rhyming couplets" as he calls them - and he's feeling lonely, He wants some happiness of his own, to love and be loved, but doesn't know how that's going to happen, when he doesn't feel he can admit to who he is.
When Love Comes to Town is a coming out story, and I've heard a lot of people have problems with coming out stories; there are too many of them about, we're at a time now when coming out, although difficult, isn't the only story LGBTQ people have to tell. This is the first coming out story I've read, but what I think makes this one different from the other coming out stories, possibly, is when it was published and where it's set - in 1993, set in Ireland. There are no mobiles and no internet. If Neil wants to make a private phone call, he has to use a payphone. It's also set in deeply religious Ireland, where being open about your sexuality doesn't seem all that wise. My knowledge of how things are in Ireland isn't that great, but if it would still be considered unwise to be open about your sexuality, at least now there is the internet where an LGBTQ person can find support groups and people like themselves, and not feel so alone. Neil doesn't have any of that. All he has is the local gay pub/club, a place which he struggles with. He feels so alone, and is so lonely, your heart goes out to him.
When Love Comes to Town is the first book I've read that covers a person's first experience of a gay pub/club. Probably because of when it's written, at first the pub seems to be just a place for gay people to try to find someone to take home, or go home with. The first time he goes, the whole evening is spent with a man he refers to as Uncle Sugar hitting on him. Buying him drinks, complimenting him, offering him a lift home. Neil is really put off by this guy as he's as old as his father, but uses him for company as he feels ridiculous and out of place. But over time, the pub becomes his haven, a place where he can be himself, once he makes friends. He realises he's not completely alone. He makes friends with a couple, one of whom was a few years over him at school, with an extremely camp guy who calls himself Daphne, and with a couple of cross-dressers. Neil has his eyes opened at the pub with just how many LGBTQ people there are, and how different they are. But although he now has friends who are like himself, and he starts a relationship, there is a part of him that still suffers. He can't admit to who he really is outside of certain circles.
There is a huge element of self-hatred at times throughout the book. He wonders why he was born this way, why he couldn't be born straight, and questions whether he could force himself to become straight by having a girlfriend. He also mentions that he has considered suicide a few times, and prays for Jesus to strike him dead, thinking everyone would be better off, everything would be easier. It's really difficult to read, because he just knows he wouldn't be accepted by those he cares about most.
I can't really say much more without spoiling the story - this really is just surface stuff. It's a fantastic book, a surprising one, and one that opened my eyes. It's a heartbreaking but moving story, and one that makes even me appreciate how things have moved forward in twenty years. I highly recommend it.
Thank you to Albert Whitman Teen and NetGalley for the proof.
Published: 1st March 2013
Publisher: Albert Whitman Teen