Review: Invisible Boys by Holden Sheppard, by Jess Rae

Trigger Warnings: This book contains suicide, abuse, homophobia and alcohol. If any of these topics are a potential hazard to you this might not be a book for you.

Favourite quote: “I run down the hotel corridor, each day of the past week flashing before my eyes, a whole row of tombstones in the cemetery my life has become.”

It should be known that I knew of Invisible Boys coming out for a while, not because I follow Fremantle Press religiously but because Mr Holden Sheppard himself was my tutor at university. So, full disclosure: yes, I know the author personally, but if anything because he was my tutor; if the book was bad you know I was going to go in! Thankfully, Invisible Boys did not disappoint. In fact far from it.

Set in tiny Geraldton on the coast of Western Australia, Charlie is a punk, aspiring to make it in music; Matt is a farm boy with no expectation to make it to the big smoke; Zeke is quiet academic trying to be the perfect son; and Hammer has a big ego that matches his big footy dreams. In a small town these boys should not be friends, nor should they have anything in common. And yet, despite living in a small town, they live in an even smaller closet.

I never thought I would relate to all four male characters, and yet I do. Sheppard writes real characters. I think the reason I was so engrossed in this book is because I know these boys; I grew up with these boys, I studied the same books as them, ate the same foods, had the same friends. I might not be from Geraldton, but this is my hometown. Ignorant adults, entitled jocks, angry nerds, the alternative loner, and the nice guy that everyone likes – I am all of these boys. Although I didn’t have a coming out experience nearly as dramatic as some of these characters, I related to so many of the experiences of them. I particularly related to Zeke, the quiet straight-A student with a deep, unrelenting rage inside. Seeing his constant struggle between wanting to be perfect for his parents and wanting to release his feelings was such a close call to home. Hammer’s anxiety, Charlie’s outspokenness, and Matt’s deep sadness were also aspects that I related to, but it was particularly Zeke’s terror of disappointing anyone that really spoke to me.

I enjoyed the length of each character’s chapters in that it didn’t feel like Sheppard was dragging anyone’s story along. His characterisation is particularly impressive as although every character has deep flaws I didn’t feel like I was being forced to like any of them; I genuinely felt for all of them. I feel like too many authors throw in a sad back-story for the sake of making a character more likeable and it can feel very forced. News flash: people can still be awful people even with a sad past. Thankfully Sheppard doesn’t go for the easy feelings; it’s complicated, deep and authentic.

I could definitely see Invisible Boys being a book required to study in high school, and unlike most class-assigned reading I would actually enjoy studying this one. Invisible Boys is a fresh perspective on Australian teen life that still has an age-less quality about the story. The ending is melancholy with no fairy-tale wrap-up where all boys end up with a smokin’ boy on their arm (sorry to disappoint); it’s realistic which I feel like the LGBTQ YA genre is lacking somewhat. It was a really special experience getting to read Sheppard’s book. While I think Invisible Boys is a fantastic stand-alone, I would definitely love to read more of the boys and more of Sheppard’s writing in general in the future.

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