A Boy’s Own Story: A Novel by Edmund White – Book review

A Boy’s Own Story is quite a well known novel about growing up as a gay teen in the fifties in America. Edmund White’s book is based on his own experiences. It is part one of a trilogy of novels based on the same character. I haven’t read the other novels, and I was initially put off because of my experience with this novel. I listened to this as an audiobook, which I don’t think was the best way to go about it. I found the voice of the narrator particularly aggravating and overly effeminate. I then went onto Youtube and listened to Edmund White reading sections of the book himself. After I listened to Edmund White read the story as he had intended it to be heard, I suddenly appreciated a lot more.

Many, many reviews have been written about this book, by professional reviewers and by other gay authors who talk about how inspiring they found this work. You can seek those out on the internet if you wish. Edmund White is a major figure in gay literature, and was also present at the Stonewall Riots, so he has a prominent place within this community. I will just add a few insights here from what I felt after reading/listening to his novel.

The first thing that I missed in the audiobook, but found through the videos of Edmund White reading, was that there were scenes in the book that were supposed to be funny. By funny, I don’t mean slapstick, but more that they were ridiculous. In the main protagonist’s attempts to find love, or something like that, he puts himself into some ridiculous situations, which in the audiobook just sounded sad. However, looking back on it I can see that they were supposed to be more quixotic. The main character is doing anything to figure out who he is and his place in the world, and because he doesn’t fit in with the morals and norms of the fifties, he ends up with a lot of awkward experiences.

The second part that I missed is that there is supposed to be a sort of building empowerment experienced in the book. By the end of the book the main protagonist does what he considers to be his first ‘adult’ act. From the narration in the audiobook this seemed far too manipulative, but thinking back, it was more about an adolescent trying to empower himself in a world which denied him any sense of power.

I found it difficult to relate to this novel in the same way that may of it’s older reviews have. The life that Edmund White describes in A Boy’s Own Story is one that I can only imagine. I couldn’t tap into any of the experiences described. In some ways it felt like how we feel when we read Victorian classics. There is nothing to relate to, but you’re there and along for the ride out of some sense of duty and hope to be entertained along the way. I think the novel is entertaining, but I don’t think the audiobook version was. So whilst I recommend the novel, I don’t recommend listening to an audiobook version (narrated by George Blackman).

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