Eric is a high school student whose mom has left for America where she is “working,” having left Eric home to fend for himself. Eric supports himself and saves for his dream of going to film school to be a director by selling himself to the rich men and women of Sydney. Eric also has a man tied up in his basement, a man he has dubbed “Joe” and whom Eric caught breaking into his house. After bashing Joe on the head, Eric holds him prisoner, though he doesn’t have much idea what to do with him now.
At school, Eric is in drama class with the other aspiring actors and directors, including his girlfriend Mary, and new student Julien. Eric manages to convince the class to put on a production of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, a play that explores rape and revenge and a darkness that fascinates Eric and his friends. The lines between fiction and reality begin to blur as they explore these themes in real life as well. Now Eric must figure out how far he is willing to push the boundaries to explore his art and meet his ultimate goals.
Puppet Boy is quite a story and one I know I didn’t begin to explain well enough. There is way too much that happens here, something dark and twisty that is only slowly revealed throughout the story, so there isn’t too much I can say here without spoiling this really fascinating book. But first let me back up. I first learned about this story when I heard author Christian Baines do a reading and I was totally intrigued. I didn’t know much about the book, but when I got the chance to review it, I jumped on it. So this book doesn’t really fall in one of our typical genres that we review here on the blog. It is definitely not a romance, not even close. I do think there is some love here. Or at least as close to love as someone like Eric can feel. But definitely not a romance. This also isn’t really GLBT fiction, though Eric does have sexual encounters with both men and women, and I think one could argue he has at least an attraction to men in some way. But that isn’t the focus of the story by any means. I wouldn’t quite call this horror, but that is closer. Puppet Boy is dark and twisty and at times horrifying and always surprising and engaging. I found myself both fascinated and repulsed by these characters, but I could not put the book down and I am really impressed with the story Baines has created.
There are a lot of things happening here, but this is not really a linear plot. We have Eric and Joe and this attempted burglary that somehow turns into a kidnapping. We have Eric’s job as essentially a teen gigolo, sleeping with the wealthy elite for the money to fund his film school education. To Eric, that is worth any sacrifice, even the client who calls him Boy and beats him until bloody. And there is the focus on the play, the one that is dark and horrifying and that Eric is determined to see performed, and that he and the other students explore with at times frightening realism. But as all these things are happening, the story is really about Eric, and to a lesser extent Mary and Julien, and how they make their way through the world, blurring the lines of ethics and lacking compassion and focusing on their own needs and desires.
What makes this all so fascinating is that we never quite know where the lines are, particularly between what is real and what is illusion. There are many elements here that seem to be one thing on the surface, and something totally different in reality. We get the shock factor, as we learn the truth about what is going on. But there is also a slow insidiousness as we slowly begin to understand just how unstable, and at time depraved, these young people are, and the steps they will take to get what they want. It is not a happy story by any means, but it is one that is quite engaging.
I would say where I struggled here a little is that there is just too much layering for me. I felt at many points like there were nuances I was missing, pieces I was supposed to put together that just went over my head. Honestly, most people are probably not bothered by this, but I am a person who wants to understand exactly what is happening, and I found that the story just pushed so far in some places that I know I wasn’t making all the connections. At times we have scenes out of order in time, or at least that happen before we get an explanation of what is going on, which added to my confusion. So aside from the emotional end, this isn’t an easy read intellectually, or at least not for me. That said, I am so impressed with Baines and how he puts this all together. The angles and nuances and the way the story develops are just so well done.
So it should be pretty clear by now that this isn’t your typical story, at least not the style we usually review here. But as I said, I found it fascinating. Eric and his friends are clever and cruel, self absorbed, but also with a clear affection between them. It is a story that kept me on edge, but also totally engaged, waiting to see what secrets were revealed. It is nothing like I expected, but definitely a book I won’t soon forget.