As Paper Kisses begins, Dark is eight. He has been woken up in the middle of the night by his parents, who are apparently surprising him with a last minute trip to the seaside. Dark has hurriedly packed some clothes, his favorite book, and his best friend, Mr Spot. Yet Dark and his parents never reach their destination; instead Dark finds himself locked in a dingy basement with only his cuddly toy for company.
When the car swerves to miss Travis that night in the woods, leaving death behind, he impulsively takes the child. Caring for a sickly and sobbing boy is not part of his plan; his commitment is to his “hobby.” However, Travis discovers something about Dark the boy is unaware of, and he knows Dark will not be missed.
In the months that follow, Dark comforts himself by writing letters to his parents and creating stories, finding that he can easily anger his captor by making noise or attempting to escape. Dark wonders where Travis goes at night when he hears the heavy footsteps and the front door locking, little realizing that he is under the same roof as a murderer.
As the years pass, Dark moves from the basement to the main house, living side by side with Travis and the two men form a sometimes difficult and tense bond.
Paper Kisses is a story split into three parts. Part 0ne is the longest, in which R.M. Grace details Dark’s shocking first few months as he learns to live without his parents, a bath, toilet, regular food, and fresh air. Grace chooses not to use a first-person narrative, yet the thoughts and feelings of Dark and Travis are palpable and at times, overwhelming, particularly during this period of adjustment and confusion for both characters. Grace very cleverly deconstructs Dark and Travis so that the reader feels we know them inside out. Dark’s childlike hope and innocence exists alongside Travis’ anger and depravity and we question how either character can survive.
As Paper Kisses moves seamlessly into Part Two, which is 9 years later, it is almost like meeting Dark and Travis again. Both men are more open and the relationship between them has clearly evolved – though is still undefined. We are shocked when Dark is exposed to – and accepts – everything Travis is, and does. Yet conversely, we recognize that this cements the deep connection between them, allowing Dark to fully acknowledge his romantic feelings for Travis.
Stockholm Syndrome is described as “feelings of trust or affection felt in many cases of kidnapping or hostage-taking by a victim towards a captor.” However, I think Grace makes the bond that exists between the two men more substantial than this. This is partly due to the awakening both men experience because of the other’s existence and also when Dark realizes that his parents were not the people he believed them to be. There is a point in the story when Dark admits to himself that “I misunderstood him so much . . . .he’s all I’ve got”. I think this is also when we accept that being enough for Dark is all that Travis has to do, in order to redeem himself in our eyes.
Initially, I found Grace’s use of imagery in Paper Kisses peculiar, especially the unsettling appearance of the Snow Leopard. In the context of the story, though, these peculiarities work and ultimately give us a greater understanding of who Dark and Travis are.
In the blurb for Paper Kisses it asks “Could you love a murderer?” and the answer is “yes.” Despite everything Travis has done, I love the man as much as Dark does. By Part Three, I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough, whilst also not wanting the story to end. On the last page, I swear I heard my heart break and was just left staring blankly at the wall.
Paper Kisses is not a story in which readers will find hurried and loud declarations of love. The novel is haunting and often extremely uncomfortable, but Grace’s writing is mesmerizing and as Dark and Travis awaken before our eyes, the connection between them can only be described as beautiful. Paper Kisses is possibly one of the best books I have ever read and I am excited to discover more of Grace’s work.