Review: Whistling in the Dark by Tamara Allen

whistlingNew York City, 1919. His career as a concert pianist ended by a war injury, Sutton Albright returns to college, only to be expelled after a scandalous affair with a teacher. Unable to face his family, Sutton heads to Manhattan with no plans and little money in his pocket but with a desire to call his life his own.

Jack Bailey lost his parents to influenza and now hopes to save the family novelty shop by advertising on the radio, a medium barely more than a novelty, itself. His nights are spent in a careless and debauched romp through the gayer sections of Manhattan.

When these two men cross paths, despite a world of differences separating them, their attraction cannot be denied. Sutton finds himself drawn to the piano, playing for Jack. But can his music heal them both, or will sudden prosperity jeopardize their chance at love?

Review by Hayden Thorne

When you pick up a copy of Allen’s debut novel, don’t expect the following: wide, sweeping landscapes; breathless, passionate exchanges; an overly thorough history lesson on early 20th century New York; glamour, scandal, intrigue; anything and everything in epic proportions. If you’re a fan of high emotions and luxurious settings in gay romance, skip the book.

Allen’s novel is the kind that moves you quietly. It’s got romance, it’s got history, and it’s got some pretty memorable characters, but what makes this book so appealing is the skillfully light touch it uses on conflict and emotion. It’s so light, in fact, that the reader’s often left with what’s unspoken, allowing him to savor that vague hint or two with a kind of languid ease. There are a number of sex scenes, yes, but they’re never graphic and are always conveyed along more emotional and psychological lines, not physical. Because of that, we get a better sense of the love Sutton and Jack feel for each other without being hit over the head with page after page of Insert-Tab-A-Into-Slot-B sex scenes or page after page of hand-wringing, hair-tearing angst over their future happiness against society’s displeasure. Allen knows when to rein things in, and she does so exquisitely.

The same can be said about the non-romantic elements and conflicts in the book. Through alternating POVs, we see, first-hand, New York’s less glamorous side, as well as the terrible toll of WWI on its survivors, poverty on the whole, the “gay underground,” and even simple day-to-day things like selling wares, eating at a nearby cafe, etc.. Nothing gets blown out of proportion in Allen’s world. People come and go, bringing with them their private demons and their dreams, and they move in their world as real people do.

In a sense, the novel is like a slice-of-life, sans the pretensions of that narrative structure. The historical angle gives it a unique and refreshing edge, which keeps our interest high. The fact that Jack’s shop deals in odds and ends – novelty items from all over – only adds to the reality of the setting along more poignant lines, given how the shop reflects not only Jack’s devotion to his late parents, but also his father’s lost dreams of seeing the world.

The side characters are a mixed, Dickensian bag of good guys, villains, and just plain quirky types, and a lot of them are well-developed, which is an amazing accomplishment if we were to consider how many they are and how long they tend to stay in any given scene. And that leads me to what I consider to be the highlight of the novel: pacing.

Allen’s book is richly-plotted, yes. We have the main conflicts (Sutton and Jack’s terrible pasts, their dreams, and their future together) as well as the smaller ones (threat of eviction, Ox and Esther’s romance, Theo’s tragi-comic adventures in his search for love, among others), and what I love the most is the fact that Allen gives these subplots almost equal time. Slow and steady seem to be her mantra, and I absolutely appreciate seeing an easy, almost idle unfolding of events because it allows the reader time to see – really see, understand, and absorb – Jack and Sutton’s world, their blooming relationship, and their complex connections with other characters, both good and bad. This is definitely not a book for the impatient.

That said, the understated, quiet quality of the book works against the story in a few (very few) instances. There are some moments in which the emotions are so subtle that the results are a sense of odd detachment and an ephemeral quality in the scene that pulls the reader away, when the moment really needs to draw on his sympathy or outrage instead. These moments are rare, though, and on the whole, they don’t at all detract from the novel’s better points.

Even though the setting is contained (nicely reflective of the “contained” emotions that define the plot), we still get to experience New York. Engaging all our senses with details that help fix us firmly in the characters’ world, Allen manages to capture a very real city at a specific point in its history. Dingy alleys, grimy walls, rundown apartments, cluttered shops, Ida’s restaurant and her home-cooked meals – we get to see, smell, feel, taste, and hear everything. It’s a great complement to a host of very real, very human characters.

Buy the book: Amazon.com, Amazon UK (not yet listed)

chauncey-gay-new-york31

4 Responses

  1. Sounds like my kind of book. As a former New Yorker, I’m immediately caught by the setting.

  2. Hayden, thank you for reading and reviewing Whistling. I appreciate the time and work involved and your review rang true for me in all respects. It’s been an interesting experience to have the chance to see my work through someone else’s eyes.
    Steve Berman at Lethe Press has shaped the story into a shorter, faster read, which I hope will be a boon to sales. Thanks again, very much, for the review.

  3. I love NY novels, gritty streets, gritty people, gritty lowdown adventures. I’ll have to pick this up after the holidays.

  4. Hey, nice tips. Perhaps I’ll buy a bottle of beer to the man from that chat who told me to visit your blog :)

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