And for those of a certain age, geographical and class background, the period detail is joltingly, exquisitely exact – not merely in the observation of concrete features, but in the way that Mars-Jones captures the texture and colour of English suburban life in the 1970s, caught somewhere between the remembered raciness of the Sixties and the sudden cultural and capitalist expansion of the Eighties. In this, as well as its depiction of a transgressive first love remembered, Box Hill put me very much in mind of Julian Barnes’s The Only Story.
Certainly, Mars-Jones finds much uplift in his potentially hellish tale. Colin’s descriptions of his own worthlessness are Eeyore-ish sighs rather than serious claims on our pity: he’s a wobble-eyed “blob”, with one leg shorter than the other, who radiates incompetence. The 1970s – clothes, furnishings, technology – are evoked accurately enough to prompt the warm blush of horrified nostalgia. Mars-Jones is very good company, often making us laugh (a set of old magazines, yellow with age, “looked as if the years had peed on them”) but there is something unnerving, as always, about the relationship between this author and his reader.
The setting for most of the book – a certain gay milieu of the late 70s and early 80s – makes it read like a portrait of a world already gone, pre-Aids, like Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library which was set in “the last summer of its kind”. The vision Box Hill delivers of that subculture – Ray’s biker buddies come round to his house and make use of Colin too – is ugly. And there are bitterer twists to come, but by the end of the book the comfort we desperately need is provided simply by the knowledge that because Colin is telling us his story, he is still here.
Yet as Colin’s measured, thoughtful narrative follows its trail of recollections and digressions, the novel refuses to be so clear-cut, producing a portrait of its narrator and his relationship that is disquieting and oddly pure. In the end, Box Hill proves to be a love story, with a message: that there is always more to see. Despite its diminutive length, it is rich with detail and complexity, and has plenty to demonstrate Mars-Jones’s well-deserved place on any list of our best.
It’s a clever and subtle novel but one that left me cold. Last year, Mars-Jones published Second Sight, a collection of his film criticism, which, like this novel, spanned around three decades, and there is a stark cinematic quality to Box Hill. If the book were transferred to the screen, its strange atmosphere might be arresting, but on the page the material falls flat.
If the first part of that makes us laugh, it’s the second part that’s key. Shock value, though it certainly exists, isn’t the game here; ultimately, our interest in the book’s twisted romance lies, instead, in how it raises intractable questions about the essential mystery of attachment between consenting adults. While the flyleaf subtitle, “a story of low self-esteem”, invites us to read Colin’s word against the grain as a study of false consciousness, the novel’s almost wicked subtlety lies in our dawning sense that to read it this way only strips him of exactly the agency we’d be seeking to defend. “Ray was good to me – he was,” Colin tells us. Rarely was so much said in a dash.
Some of the treatment endured by Colin makes for decidedly uncomfortable reading. The relationship is exploitative and abusive — Ray tells him he only took him on because ‘No one else would have you’ — but the novel’s wry subtitle, ‘A Story of Low Self-esteem’, takes this as a given. What’s intriguing here is the conspicuous lack of reproach in the narrator’s account; his unrepentant equanimity speaks convincingly to the sense of fatedness that attends early sexual experience — the certitude, even in the face of objective evidence to the contrary, that one is absolutely the agent of one’s own destiny. As Colin recalls: ‘I was ready. I had no real idea of what I was ready for, but still I was ready.’