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What: I Had Such Friends by Meg Gatland-Veness

Who: Pantera Press

When: August 1st 2018

How: A copy of this novel was provided by Pantera Press for review.

When Charlie Parker dies, it affects everyone who knew him. Everyone, that is, except for seventeen-year-old Hamish Day, the boy who lives on a cabbage farm and only has one friend. But Hamish soon finds himself pulled into the complicated lives of the people left behind. Among them is Annie Bower, the prettiest girl in school. As he uncovers startling truths about his peers, his perspectives on friendship, love, grief and the tragic power of silence are forever altered.

Meg’s own teaching experience has enabled her to delve deeper into the true nature of a universal high school experience. I Had Such Friends will speak to high school students/teenagers on a personal level, and foster important conversations among Australian youth, school and family culture on issues including abuse, failure and neglect.

With hard-hitting themes including unrequited love, abuse, neglect, sexuality, bullying, prejudice, death and suicide, I Had Such Friends is a poignant journey of self-discovery, grief and the tragic power of silence. A gripping look at adolescent pain with a narrative maturity that accurately reflects its YA milieu, I Had Such Friends resonates with young adult audiences and pushes them to reflect on their own ‘sliding doors’ moment.

I would say that it’s pretty hard to get published in general. I would also say that I think it’s a little bit harder to get published in Australia. I would say that it’s harder to publish queer books in general. And I would also say that it’s harder to publish queer books in Australia. I think these things are pretty well known and evident, and not so much a personal feeling on the subject of publishing and publishing queer books.

For a long time the only queer books that did get published were Tragic Queer Stories. Those stories that, mostly, served as a lesson for non-queer readers. A lesson of ‘look how hard life is for queer people’, a lesson of ‘look how you shouldn’t treat queer people’. They were, for the most part, stories about queer people for non-queer readers.

Luckily enough, we seemed to have mostly moved on from this. There are books about queer people for queer readers. Queer books that aren’t lessons in tragedy. Queer books that are fucking happy. Of course, there are still Tragic Queer Stories, and I’ll talk about my personal feelings on those kinds of stories in general at a later time. These Tragic Queer Stories, especially ownvoices ones, can be cathartic for the writer. They can also provide solidarity to the reader. Even though I am not a big fan of Tragic Queer Stories in general, I can see that ownvoices ones can hold importance.

Now, you might be wondering why this review has started off like a discussion of publishing and queer books and Tragic Queer Stories. It’s because all of these things come into play when talking about I Had Such Friends. I Had Such Friends is an Aussie Queer YA novel. It is also a Tragic Queer Story. Before I even go ahead and detail my thoughts and feelings on that, I just want to ponder aloud how this non-ownvoices Tragic Queer Story is one that made it out there. I thought we were well beyond publishing queer stories for non-queer people to teach them lessons, and yet that is exactly what I Had Such Friends felt like to me. Not once did I Had Such Friends read to me like a book for a gay Australian teenager. Not once. The whole thing felt like an expose on how horrible homophobia is, and how you shouldn’t treat queer people like shit because they actually take it to heart, and how being queer is so lonely and terrible and how life can be not worth living because of it.

Yeah, that’s really not what a queer teen needs. And I’m sure people will disagree with me but reviews are personal, and this is how I feel. I don’t think queer teens need a book where a boy realises he’s gay, falls in love, gets found out and subsequently bashed up for his sexuality, and how the bullying was so bad for his boyfriend that his boyfriend killed himself. I struggle to see the light in that for any queer teen, and I struggle to understand why this, of all Aussie queer YA manuscripts floating around out there, is the one that is going to make it into the hands of Aussie queer teens. I know some people might say that Aussie queer teens have had things like this happen to them. And yes, I am sure they have. But my response to that is: if a story like this needs to be told then it needs to be told by an ownvoices writer. In this case, a gay Aussie guy needed to write this story, if this story really is what Aussie queer teens need.

While I was reading I Had Such Friends, and realising what I have detailed above, I felt so despondent. I felt so despondent because these Tragic Queer Stories that are largely serving as a lesson for non-queer people are still around. And still being praised. I’ve seen reviews of this book saying that it was heartbreaking and so sad and that it will stay with them. And I just think… is that all queer stories are for some people? Heartbreaking, sad, ‘stay with you’ stories? I’m sick of Tragic Queer Stories serving as tear-jerking fodder for non-queer readers.

I guess I haven’t really talked much about the book itself, and that’s because even though I was not on board with the entire premise of the book, I was not a fan of anything inside it. The main character was a horrible person who bullied his own best friend (who turned out to be a homophobic asshole but we didn’t know that until the very end), and the only POC in the book was stereotyped in ways that made me question whether anyone who read this book before publication realised how completely harmful that is. Hardly anything happened in the book, and when things did the main character was a passive bystander who refused to help himself or the boyfriend he claimed to love. He put himself first, always, and I couldn’t stand it.

All in all, I Had Such Friends was not for me. It was not for me, and these stories will never be for me. I only hope that one day queer stories for non-queer readers are a thing of the past. And that if we must tell Tragic Queer Stories we leave them in the hands of people who know who they’re writing them for.

© 2018, Chiara @ Books for a Delicate Eternity. All rights reserved.

trigger warning

homophobia, use of homophobic language, use of ableist language, suicide jokes, fat shaming, lesbophobic statement, death of a sister via fall, reference to death of teen via car crash, bullying, money struggles, child abuse/domestic violence, suicide of a partner, hate crime (physical assault of gay characters), reference to sexual abuse/child molestation, reference to death of a pet, protagonist with depression

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Posted on: August 21, 2018 • By: Chiara

6 Responses to I Had Such Friends by Meg Gatland-Veness: It’s a No From Me

  1. *furiously writes ownvoices happy gays* also this is…Not good. Can we put ‘sad gays for straights’ stories to bed? is it to much to ask

  2. Oh dear, this sounds…just awful. I agree that if something like this is going to be written, it should be by an ownvoices author. Not that non-queer authors can’t write queer characters…but this type of book? Yeah, no. And the MC just sounds kind of awful, so how you even supposed to be empathetic? Kind of a mess all around, I guess. Thanks for your honest thoughts though. I always appreciate it! :)

    -Lauren

    • Chiara says:

      It really was quite awful, Lauren :( And yes, I think stories like this should be written by ownvoices writers because there’s history and nuance that non-ownvoices writers will never understand. To be honest the whole thing was unenjoyable for me. No problem! Thanks for reading and commenting <3

  3. Kelly says:

    I have this one to read too Chiara but will be proceeding with caution now, thank you for the warning. I’ve spoken to other readers about the same issue, in particular authors who have created characters of colour for the white reader and have wondered if it’s a case of ignorance or ill researched. At the very least in both cases, it’s insensitive. When it comes to characters from minority of marginalised backgrounds, I’m all for characters experiencing the less than positive parts of life but that can’t be all they experience. We need hope, joy and unconditional love and acceptance especially for teen readers. That’s why audiences grasp into media such as Love, Simon. Life is just hard enough as it is. Thank you for such an honest and articulate review Chiara, so beautifully written and heartfelt ♡♡♡

    • Chiara says:

      Glad to have raised the issue, Kell! And I totally agree with your comment, too. I just am so weary of writers writing about the tragedy of marginalised folks without sharing their identity. I thought we were over that, but apparently not. Thanks so much, lovely <3

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