Review by Leslie H. Nicoll
When I volunteered to write a review of Paper Moon by Marion Husband, Erastes said, “Oh, wonderful! Another gay historical!” While the story is historical (it takes place in 1946) and does feature gay characters, I’m not sure that gay historical is the best description. Historical fiction that describes the experience of being gay in the mid-20th century might be more apt. Yes, that’s mouthful but it’s meant to convey that this is a story firmly rooted in reality in terms of the tale that is told; for those of us who enjoy “gay historical” be they romances, war stories, mysteries or whatever, it is probably a worthwhile exercise to touch base with reality every now and then and Paper Moon is an excellent book for that endeavor.
By way of context, I was rummaging around on the Amazon gay and lesbian best seller list and came across The Boy I Love, also by Husband. Having never heard of it, I did a little research and discovered the excellent review of it at this site (you can read it here).
I immediately downloaded the book (I have an e-reader, hooray!) and read it in 48 hours. Hooked, I dived right into the sequel, Paper Moon, as soon as I finished the first. Both are excellent but I would give Paper Moon an edge as being more well-written and slightly more satisfying, overall.
The stories take place 26 years apart and share a common theme: men coming home after the war and struggling to pick up the pieces and rebuild their lives. In The Boy I Love, the central characters were Paul Harris, his lovers Adam Mason and Patrick Morgan and Patrick’s injured brother, Mick; the war was World War I. Paper Moon is Bobby Harris’s story set in the year following the end of World War II. Like his father Paul, Bobby has come home from the war injured but his disfigurement is worse: Paul lost an eye but Bobby has been horribly burned when he crashed his plane. He describes his hands as claws and his face has melted away, crudely repaired by surgeons who have taken skin grafts from all over his body. His psychic pain is deep, too, but we learn as the story progresses that his self-loathing began long before the loss of his “beautiful face.”
In the first book, the homosexual characters were central; in Paper Moon they play a more tangential role, which probably is accurate for the time and setting. There are a few flamboyant “queens” (the “artsy” crowd) but for the most part, the gay characters are invisible and exist on a continuum from tolerated to despised. They work hard to keep their sexuality in the closet and blend in with “normal” society. One character from the first book has gone so far as to enter into a marriage of convenience, something I wouldn’t have expected of him.
This is a character driven story, which I enjoy. There’s not a lot of action, just the overlapping and interweaving tales of Bobby, Hugh, and Nina and the other people in their lives: parents, friends, former lovers, children, siblings. Not everyone is present in physical form but everyone is present in the story and with each turn of the page, a new layer is revealed, deftly told and subtly nuanced.
If there is any weakness in Husband’s writing is that her female characters are not nearly as complex as the men; Nina is the most fleshed out but still, she remains a cipher. One character who comes into the book at about the halfway point has potential, but even she is given short shrift. The rest of the women are like cardboard cutouts and one character from the first book never even gets mentioned—and her absence bothered me. Husband could have fixed it with a sentence, ie, She got run over by a bus, but she didn’t. Oh well, it is a minor irritation and didn’t strongly detract from my overall enjoyment of the book. To be perfectly honest, I find the men more interesting to read about, anyway.
All in all, I highly recommend this book. It had an incredibly satisfying, if slightly bittersweet ending that stayed with me long after I closed the cover.
NB: While this can be read as a standalone, I recommend reading it with The Boy I Love. Knowing the backstory of the characters who reappear in Paper Moon will enhance your overall reading experience, in my opinion. Conveniently, the two books are together in an omnibus that is available from various booksellers. E-book readers, like me, will have to buy both books separately.
NNB: Because I was curious about the author, I tracked down her website. I discovered that she had posted a short story that she wrote, The Lilac Tree, which inspired both of these books. You can read it here. f you haven’t read either of the books, read the story first, then again after, and see if your perspective on the characters changes.