Two young friends confront childhood fantasies and real-world monsters in this debut coming-of-age tale.
Ever since Brian was a young child, his parents have looked at him with “worried eyes.” In his 1960s suburb, he befriended girls and twirled around in his sisters’ dresses—which led to outbursts from his father. His sweet, sensitive nature doesn’t help him navigate first grade in Catholic school, where he learns about hell and the intense corporal punishment that nuns deal out to other children. Brian soon finds refuge in imagination with his classmate Bernadette Palladino —whom Quirk perfectly describes as “Giving [Brian] tantalizing glimpses of a kind of madness she was cultivating for a mysterious use in some vague but glamorous future.” Bernadette fills their imaginary neighborhood with witches and flying monkeys—stand-ins for a strange pair of sisters living up the street and class bullies, respectively—which can only be defeated by magic spells. As the pair grow older, their creative perspective leads to an interest in theater, and their cast of childish villains is slowly replaced by real threats of domestic violence and sexual abuse. Quirk does a fantastic job of relating very adult dramas, as seen by his naïve but precocious characters; Brian’s imagination runs wild when he stumbles upon an affair between a nun and one of her colleagues, for example. Even more impressively, Quirk allows these points of view to evolve as Brian and Bernadette increasingly confront real-life problems; Bernadette and Brian grapple with their sexuality and also realize that their parents and other adults are the true monsters. The most complicated interaction in the novel is between Brian and Father Joe, a sexual-predator priest whose affection Brian tragically mistakes for first love.
An inventive story with charming central characters and harrowing subject matter.