It is summer in the 1970s and 18 year old Colin finds himself on Box Hill where he literally stumbles across Ray, a leather-clad biker, and whose cock he is servicing before moving in with the silent, powerful stranger: an arrangement which will last until the early 1980s.
Colin’s relationship with Ray is an expression of the human relationship stripped bare, expressing sex as a power game: what most of us would call sado-masochistic: a relationship built not on words or emotions but on actions, what Jeffrey Weeks sees as focusing on ‘The ritual as much as the zone of the body…the eroticisaton of the the situation as much as the orgasm.’ This is the iron fist around which Colin narrates with the softness of a velvet glove, the dead-pan make-do-and-mend demeanour of an Alan Bennett character which calms the unsure reader…
‘I thought he was going to kill me with his cock, but when I found he hadn’t, after a while I started to cheer up, and to think it hadn’t been too bad, all in all. I’d never looked forward to being fucked, not ever. I thought it was always going to be much worse’
This lends ‘Box Hill’ a cheery but melancholy tone but doesn’t mean that Mars-Jones takes easy options: this isn’t a tome which pleads for ‘acceptance’ or ‘understanding’, it doesn’t paint the relationship with a vanilla gloss: it simply shows what Margaret Drabble calls ‘the sociological detail’ of the relationship: Ray is presented as a brooding, almost silent presence with whom Colin clearly doesn’t share the elements of what most would see as a successful and happy relationship. There are no scenes of happy homemaking or the silly games of giddy lovers, making ‘Box Hill’ a sharp and refreshing novel which trusts the reader with its material. How you view this will, inevitably, depend on where you stand in relation to activities on the ‘sexual fringe’. A review in ‘The Guardian’ stated that ‘Box Hill’ presented a picture of an abusive relationship, with the only glimmer of light being Colin’s narration as evidence of his escape. But I am not so sure, and neither is Colin:
‘Well, Ray’s charisma was real, and I wasn’t the only one to feel it. But I went along with it. It’s only exaggerating a little to say that I knew what I was doing when I fell over those long and insolently extended legs. I was ready. I had no real idea of what I was ready for, but still I was ready.’
Perhaps Colin’ surrender to Ray could be what Camille Paglia sees in some of the work of Tom of Finland: ‘not annihilation but exhilarating play’. Or, there again, it could represent what John Rechy sees as a gay man’s embracing of ‘the straight world’s judgement, debasement, hatred and contempt of and for the homosexual’; in other words, has Colin been so indoctrinated with homophobia that it has become a part of his sexual psyche: a desire which requires simultaneous pleasure and punishment (or is that punishment as pleasure?)
Ultimately, ‘Box Hill’ is a short, beautifully written and slightly sad book which dares to look at the outer fringes of relationships in a way which, while never preachy, makes the reader question what it is which draws two people together.