A review of Adam Mars-Jones’ Box Hill
By Mikołaj Bać
If a book begins with fellatio in an empty part of Box Hill in Surrey, the mecca of motorcyclists in the 1970s, in my mind it signals that we are dealing with quite an extraordinary piece of writing. This unabashed novel by influential British critic and author Adam Mars-Jones is witty and full of unexpected humor. Box Hill is, primarily, about a gay relationship in which domination is essential for both partners to coexist.
Reading the book for the first time, I took a moment to step back and ask, “What am I going to do with you?” A novel so full of sexual tension, depicting a peculiar sort of love that is made up of different kinds of dominance, doesn’t normally suit my world view. The only possible response that occurred to me was: “Whatever you want to do.” And indeed, this is also how the relationship between Ray and Colin begins.
The two main characters may be seen as opposites. That is how Colin (also the narrator) perceives himself in comparison to his beloved, older lover Ray. The latter can easily be described as a bodybuilder, whose charisma and attention to detail predisposed him to attract affectionate people. In contrast, Colin tellingly describes himself: “I left school because I was short and fat and tired of being bullied.” Even though their relationship was not supposed to last longer, as it is not clear what Ray is going to do with his lover, it stretches out for six long years and ends with Ray’s death, which is surrounded by a mysteriousness that sticks with you until the end of the book.
The subtitle, “A Story of Low Self-esteem,” emphasizes Colin’s lack of confidence. He doesn’t seek reconciliation, nor does he want to accuse his lover of anything. The reader, however, feels sympathy for the narrator, which gives the reading a sense of masochism. Colin says that he was raped by his lover and simultaneously concludes his account of it with “it hadn’t been too bad, all in all.” What’s more, he’s in a relationship in which he’s not even allowed to open his mouth during the poker nights of the bike club (only if it is for the purpose of giving a blowjob to another biker), and he can’t sleep on a bed. He appears somehow as a stray dog, with Ray being the one who takes him in, because “no-one else would have you,” and yet Colin feels grateful to him. This duality strikes the reader every now and then and makes this novel even more interesting.
Whatever you may think about it, the book showcases perfectly the irony, dark humor and the witty style of Mars-Jones’ storytelling. You almost feel as if you were sitting with your uncle, drinking a pint of beer, while he’s telling you about his (naughty) teenage years. The mixture of the roar of motorbikes, smell of leather, being in a commune with both punks and bikers, lack of fear about AIDS, absolutely no control on the roads and ever-growing sideburns evokes a sense of nostalgia for those bygone years.
This stretch in time opens up a whole new way of understanding the change of the world. The wild ‘70s in which you could have casually gone over to a biker and heedlessly fall in love with him or her will never come back. When Colin sees that the local authorities are about to close Box Hill for bikers, he remarks that maybe 1981 wasn’t the best time for Ray to die, but it was definitely the last moment when he could live the life he had chosen.
The author brings out striking differences in relationships. However, as horrible as it may sound, Colin, who is treated literally like a stray dog (whether through being brought to the bar on a leash and in a collar, or doing everything at the snap of Ray’s fingers), has fallen completely for Ray. At the same time, the narrator introduces his parents, who are deeply and madly in love with each other but in a completely different way. Their devotion is so profoundly ingrained in their spirits that they even win some bacon in the contest for the best couple in the Dunmow flitch every year – it’s a kind of fairy-tale relationship. All of that, however, also has its downside, because ultimately Box Hill covers the long gap between the ‘70s and the 2000s and is heavily marked with the topic of death. That’s why this book, which initially seems to have been written only to please with its pinching sense of humor, also contemplates how to deal with loss.
If you are looking for beauty, you won’t find it in Box Hill. But if it’s a brutally honest portrayal of life that makes you want to read a novel, then there is plenty of that in here. From dealing with yourself and your own low self-esteem in a somewhat toxic relationship, to coping with the loss of loved ones.
For me, this kind of book deserves the title of “one biter”. Once you dive into it, it’s not easy to stop reading, and the length of 120 pages makes it possible to consume it in one day. This type of consumption of well-prepared, juicy, literary “meat,” I would eagerly recommend to anyone.
Mikołaj Bać is a writer and photographer as well as a student in Utrecht University in contemporary literary studies, particularly interested in gender and intercultural approach. He’s also about to finish his first non-fiction book concerning the culture of Upper-Mustang as well as head of the design section of RevUU.
Author image by Lee Russell
Mars-Jones, Adam. Box Hill. Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020.