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Malorie Blackman is probably best known for her Noughts and Crosses trilogy, a mirror-image take on race and identity in a society very much like South Africa during the apartheid era. Boys Don’t Cry is one of her many stand-alone novels, with a backdrop much like that of Britain in our own time. Although less harsh than the environs of Noughts and Crosses, it’s not a kind society for its protagonists, especially if they are young and in any way different to what’s expected of them. In that sense, this is an issues-heavy book, which may put off some of its target readership. However, its sensitive handling of those issues, in particular masculinity and its companion, sexual identity, will endear it to many older readers.
The central character is Dante Bridgeman, a likeable seventeen year old, who we meet on the second Thursday in August, a day etched into the psyche of many grown-up people. It’s A Level results day and Dante is pacing the floor, waiting for the post to arrive. His results are critical to his prospects of having a place at university and a life that is easier than his father’s. He also wants to escape from his overly critical father and Adam, his annoying younger brother. However, Melanie, Dante’s ex-girlfriend beats the postman to the door and her delivery is even more important than his A Level results. With her is Emma, the baby daughter Dante didn’t even know he has. Within a few minutes, his view of his future has been rubbed out, to be replaced by an unknown, terrifying new vista. He’s seventeen, with a little girl and he has no idea how to be her dad.
The fact that he has a daughter is worth commenting on. Had Malorie Blackman written the book as a lecture on mutual responsibility for sex and its consequences, a baby boy would have done the job just as well. But she’s writing about emotions as well as issues and little Emma has arrived in a house of grieving men. Dante’s mother died of cancer some time ago, leaving her husband and sons bereft and unable to talk about their loss. This is a common theme in books for teenagers; Patrick Ness also depicts men in a state of powerfully internalised sorrow in his Chaos Walking trilogy.
Boys Don’t Cry isn’t as painfully repressed as Chaos Walking but it shows the consequences of enforced gender roles. It’s played out in the narrative in big ways – for example, Adam’s confrontation with bigotry and violence – but also smaller ones. Dante has to learn that being a man doesn’t give him rights not allowed to women. Melanie walks away from her baby, which shocks Dante as it will many readers, but he is, whether he likes it or not, that baby’s father and he is better able to bring her up than her shattered, impoverished young mother. He has a father, who very quickly becomes a doting grandad, a brother who is happy to help with babysitting, and an affectionate, if acerbic auntie. None of these people take Emma off his hands and he is forced to learn how to cope, but he has a support network that many single parents would envy. Even so, babies don’t come with an instruction manual (or an off-switch) and Emma is both incredibly cute and unbelievably demanding and needy. Living with her is an education as profound as anything university can offer, in love, loyalty and the importance of standing up for what you believe and the people you love.
Although Boys Don’t Cry is a lighter book than Noughts And Crosses, Malorie Blackman avoids offering her young characters – and readers – oven ready solutions. Life can be difficult and we humans have a talent for making it harder for ourselves. It can take mere seconds to set in motion a process that will last for the rest of our lives. However, the results don’t have to be a disaster. The choices we make, as individuals and as a society can shape what happens to us and those who are important to us.
RHCP Digital, London 2012 ISBN 978-1-407-07836-6. 320pp in print.