Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Fiona Scarlett, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Boys Don’t Cry’ by Fiona Scarlett

Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber & Faber; 178 pages; 2021.

It sounded like Da was crying. I’ve never seen Da cry. He tells us that crying is a sign of weakness. That boys don’t cry. That boys should never cry. So we don’t. Ever. Unless we’re in private, when nobody sees.

If you took a big cooking pot and threw in Irish authors Roddy Doyle and Kit de Waal, then added the scriptwriters for the Irish gangster TV series Love/Hate and gave it a good stir, the end result might be Fiona Scarlett’s Boys Don’t Cry.

This novella about sibling love, divided loyalties, illness, grief and toxic masculinity is a heartrending — and heartwarming — read.

A tale of two brothers

Set in working-class Dublin, the story unfolds through the eyes of two brothers, who tell their version of events in alternate chapters.

Joe is 17 and a gifted artist. He’s been lucky enough to secure a place in a prestigious private school, but he is constantly aware that he is from a different social class and doesn’t quite fit in. He’s often bullied and expected to behave in a stereotypical way, purely because of his background.

Finn is 12 and a happy-go-lucky boy who loves playing sport and having fun with friends. He looks up to his big brother and adores his Ma and Da. But when he develops unexplained bruising on his arms and legs and begins suffering from bad nose bleeds, a question mark is raised over his health. Is he being physically abused at home, or is something else going on?

What makes the story so compelling is the way in which it is told, for each brother’s version of events is told in a different time period — Joe’s is AFTER Finn’s — but they are interleaved so that one loosely informs the other to make a more powerful read.

Working-class family

When I began reading this book, I literally had no idea what it was about. I have no memory of buying it and don’t know why I did so, other than it must have received a good review somewhere or I thought the subject matter appealed at the time. (According to Amazon, I purchased it on 1 May 2021.)

While it soon becomes clear that the family in Boys Don’t Cry is not your usual working-class family — Da runs a drug operation for the local kingpin, Dessie Murphy, but is now locked up in Mountjoy prison for shooting a policeman, who nearly died — it takes a while to figure out why everyone is wracked with grief and why Joe hates his father so much.

In fact, Joe, a complex character, is the heart of this story. He’s the one who holds the narrative together and makes it such a compelling read because you feel for him — and fear for him.

He’s clearly emotionally troubled — it takes some time to get to the root of why this might be the case — and he’s filled with hate for Dessie Murphy and wants nothing to do with him. But when his friend Sabine incurs a debt she can’t pay off, the temptation to do a one-off job for the gangster becomes hard to resist.

As a reader, you know that Dessie is grooming Joe to join the gang, but Joe is naive, oblivious to the dangers and realities of the criminal underworld: it’s never a case of just doing one job and walking away, once you’re in the “family” you can never leave…

A tear-jerker

Boys Don’t Cry is a remarkable read in so many ways. It’s a brilliant evocation of a family plunged in grief, of a teenager struggling to determine his own code of ethics and of a young boy grappling with mortality. It’s about heavy subjects but there are flashes of humour throughout to lighten the load.

The author is a primary school teacher and it’s clear she knows what makes children and teens tick; she really conveys their moods and feelings and mindset in an authentic way.

A word of warning though. I wouldn’t recommend reading this one in public — and I’d suggest having tissues on hand, because it’s a bit of a tear-jerker, ironic given the title, which is all about repressing emotions and keeping everything in check.

I read this book for Novellas in November (#NovNov), which is hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck 

19 thoughts on “‘Boys Don’t Cry’ by Fiona Scarlett”

  1. BorrowBox has novels by writers called Fiona, by writers with the surname Scarlett, and a novel called Scarlett, but not Boys Don’t Cry. And anyway, novels where the protagonist is on a downward path make me anxious.

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    1. Ah, maybe it’s just too new? Or hasn’t been published in Australia yet? Mine is a UK edition because I still have a UK Amazon account for my Kindle… only possible cos I still have a UK address and bank account.

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  2. I was very moved by the book. Fiona Scarlett has the power of a young Anne Enright for me. Finn got straight through to me and somehow kept lifting the mood in spite of all he was dealing with. The shape of it was just gorgeous. What a brave novel. So glad you really appreciated it too! Jenny

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    1. Ah, so nice to know you have read this book, too! Yes, Finn was a delight … so upbeat and funny at times. I really enjoyed this one. I think the author really got the balance right as it could have easily tipped over into being maudlin and/or sentimental

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  3. Increasingly my library has some books only available on Borrow Box, and try as I might, I cannot get it to work. Not even with the help of the tech help at the library who admit that it can be troublesome for some users.

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    1. The problem with those kinds of things is that they are so dependent on what type of device you are using, what browser you have etc etc. I just know in my last UK job when we were developing an app, it was a nightmare trying to get it to work across both Apple and Android. So getting books to work is probably even more tricky… just the sheer number of ebook file types is mind boggling. I have a piece of free software that converts files into Kindle friendly versions but it is tricky and temperamental to use.

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  4. Based solely on your totally brilliant review, I have just completed this book – and you so accurately and incisively identify its grit, yet its heartfelt poignancy. Thank you (yet again, and as always) for this recommendation. It’s certainly a book that will stay with me.

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    1. Thank you for your lovely comment, HT. It’s always wonderful to hear from readers who have gained something from my reviews, makes me feel less like I am just putting stuff out into the ether and wasting my time. So glad this book resonated with you. It is a brilliant novella and one that has stayed with me, too.

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