Review by Hayden Thorne
It is the beginning of the summer, and Paul has just left school. Estranged from the people around him and unable to communicate with his parents, he feels lonely and unloved. But his life suddenly changes when he meets a young medical student whom he renames Gary. Their relationship develops through the long hot summer, to reach its climax with the approach of autumn.
Kenneth Martin was only sixteen when he wrote Aubade, using his poverty-stricken adolescence as well as people he knew for the book’s central conflict and characters. Given those, one can say that Aubade is the ultimate gay young adult novel. Elizabeth Bowen’s review for the Tatler sums it up best: “Most books about [adolescence] come from the pressure of emotional memory: Kenneth Martin writes from the very heart of them.”
The novel is very short: 150-plus pages with large text. I read the story first and then the book’s introduction afterwards – not advisable, in hindsight, because Kenneth Martin’s introduction provides a long, detailed account of his adolescence, his family, their hardships, and his experiences in publishing and beyond. Knowing all those beforehand would have made my reading experience much more comfortable because at the very least, I’d have been able to read through the book with a better understanding of Paul’s character.
Stylistically, Martin’s age and inexperience show. The prose alternates between concise and clunky. The novel’s rough around the edges, at times lyrical in its descriptions, and other times devoid of sensory details. The dialogue also teeters between natural and stilted, and Martin provides an interesting – and rather poignant – reason for his attempts at keeping proper syntax and not colloquial speech.
Paul, as the novel’s main character, makes things a little more difficult if one decided to skip Martin’s introduction. On the whole, Paul is unlikable. He’s cruel to his parents, his friends, and toward girls. He’s bored and restless, withdrawn and angry, selfish and proud, and he lashes out at the smallest provocation. Without understanding Martin’s background, it’s quite easy to simply dismiss Paul as another insufferable, angst-ridden teenager who’s suffocating under the pressures of family and convention. As it turns out, things aren’t that simple with him.
Kenneth Martin’s childhood and adolescence were a miserable time for him, being an adopted son of a large, impoverished Irish family (he was adopted to replace a child who died), where endless hardship had taught everyone to be silent and walled up despite their close physical proximity. Growing up under such unhappy circumstances, coupled with his own development as a confused gay kid, Martin lets it all out through Paul. The absurd quarrels, the outbursts of rage, the illogical cruelty, the loneliness, the extreme self-centeredness – everything about Paul becomes more solid once its foundation in real life is understood.
I think the only thing that makes Paul’s circumstances a little implausible is the fact that Martin makes Paul’s family more financially stable than his real-life family. The degree of Paul’s rage, then, is somewhat disproportionate, but I suppose one can always argue that we’re still looking at things through a disaffected teenager’s eyes. In that sense, financial stability doesn’t really matter.
Paul’s romance with Gary actually makes up a fairly small portion of the novel. Yes, most of the book focuses on Paul: his relationship with his dysfunctional family and his friends, with only occasional references to his restlessness and loss of interest in girls and growing fascination for Gary, at least in the first two-thirds of the book. The novel’s more of a character study, which builds up in the direction of Paul’s awakening sexuality. It’s in the last third of the book that we’re finally shown the growing relationship between the two young men.
The minor characters are limited in development. There’s enough there for us to have a pretty basic idea of who they are, but because a lot of them tease us with all sorts of interesting histories, complexities, and quirks, it won’t come as a surprise if we ultimately feel a bit let down because they’re not explored as deeply as perhaps they should be. Gary, especially, remains elusive despite Martin’s efforts at bringing him to life. There’s a certain untouchable quality in him that makes him, almost literally, an ideal that poor Paul can only dream of. That Paul renames him Gary (Gary’s real name is John) can be seen as a reflection of that, which to me is the saddest detail in the book.
The lack of polish in a sixteen-year-old writer’s first novel can be a bit off-putting at times, but the intensity of feeling and the crazy, sometimes disjointed fumbling around for answers work well in tandem with the absence of stylistic maturity.