three pairs of lovers with space

A review of Reasons of the Heart by Bron Nicholls, Australia, 1993

 

Forbidden love successfully flouting modern mores  ****

               Only edition, paperback

Out of the blue and after ten years of no communication, Australian teacher Fred Musgrove receives a telephone call from recently widowed, young Jonno, his lost love. His harmony is shattered, setting off two months of introspective reminiscence recorded in the form of a diary mingling his life story and his present-day emotional revival through Jonno and Jonno's six-year-old Down's Syndrome son.

Jonno comes into his life in 1968 as an eleven-year-old paper-boy encountered on the street.  A strong bond almost immediately forms between them.  Soon deeply enamoured, the hitherto sexually-innocent, twenty-four-year-old Fred realises he is a pederast.  Within a year, they become lovers on Jonno's prompting, and remain so for five years until Jonno at seventeen sets off for an independent life as an artist.

Both during their affair and in retrospect, Jonno minces no words in asserting how strongly he feels he is benefitting from Fred's  love ("I could never quite believe my good luck!"), nor do either of them in denouncing the ignorance and hypocrisy of society in being ready to condemn their love if it should be discovered.  I could discern no grounds given to the reader for taking a view contrary to theirs, so this is a courageously heretical novel. 

Jonno comes from a poor background with no father, a negligent mother and a violent step-father he naturally hates, and is therefore precisely the sort of boy most likely to seek and benefit from this kind of relationship: "our love was both a result of and a cure for love's neglect".  My understanding is that the sort of informal adoption under cover of which their love blossomed has been pretty common historically, though little written about, and this was the last era before rising mass hostility and suspicion made it hard to envisage in an English-speaking country.  The emotions described are utterly convincing, especially Fred's confusion over his overlapping roles as lover,  friend, teacher and substitute father.

Though the story of Fred and Jonno's love affair is the heart of the story, it actually forms only a small portion of quite a long novel, by the end of which the reader has come to know and understand Fred in intimate detail.  His own childhood is explored in detail, including another, short but equally moving, story of deep emotional bonding between man and boy, that between Fred, when he himself was eleven, and a sweet old Czech pianist who firmly holds back from anything more hugs and kisses.  The heart-breaking manner in which their friendship is broken off on unfounded suspicion stands in ironic contrast to the survival of Fred's long and fully-sexual affair with Jonno.  

Having guessed wrongly that the story rang too true not to be mostly autobiographical, I was surprised to discover the author is actually a woman.  Perhaps I shouldn't have been, for it is one of the odd enigmas of man/boy love in fiction that, despite the critical role of the man-hating variety of feminist in bringing about public hysteria over the real thing (with all the suffering that has entailed), much or even most of  the best and most understanding fictional depictions of it have been by other women.  I have in mind here Mary Renault, Isabelle Holland, Frances Vernon, Marguerite Yourcenar, Ursula Zilinsky and Laura Argiri. However, the first four of these skirted away from examining the important positive role of eros in instigating and cementing the bond between man and boy, and though the last two did address it, they muddled it with being gay.  Nicholls addresses it head-on.

Nichols's use of metaphor is sometimes superb; reading Darwin as an adolescent after his strict Christian indoctrination was for Fred to see "old fears hobble away like goblins in fairy stories being banished for telling lies." However, as might be expected from its format as a realistic diary, the novel is full of mundane details of daily life and these weigh it down, especially before one has got to know Fred enough to care.  I wonder whether a shorter and straighter narrative might not have worked better. 

Reasons of the Heart is a story to savour for its most tender passages and for its remarkable and sensitive insight into the nature of a kind of love few dare write about, rather than as drama.  Though good, I would recommend the other writers I mentioned more strongly, simply because they tell better stories.

 

Reviewed by Edmund Marlowe on Goodreads.com, 28 Aug. 2016.