In Garrett Leigh’s latest contemporary romance, ex-surfer turned businessman Liam Mallaney moves back to Holkham in Norfolk, to mourn the loss of his husband, Cory. Living now in the dream house Cory and Liam had designed, means Liam is near to his father, who is in failing health, and his married sister, Rosa.
Everyone around Liam knows he is lonely and one night he is cajoled into a night out at a gay club in King’s Lynn, the nearest town. Here he is picked up by Zac, a rent-boy who has moved from London to escape unspecified trouble and drugs. He has been clean of heroin for six months when the story begins though he does smoke a lot of weed.
This is a difficult novel to review. The writing is definitely superior to many I have to read, or have read. The plotline is a good one with so many facets of life – grief, romance, family, sex workers and the effects of drugs – to explore. And in addition, there’s dealing with the emotional side of losing a dearly loved husband and starting again, and the failing health and dementia in a strong parent. These are difficult, emotional areas and it promised to be a complex and interesting read that I was really looking forward to.
I know you can tell there is a ‘but’ coming and there is – it feels a little rushed, and what should be a really emotional ride isn’t one. It is really frustrating because I was so invested in the premise of this novel and it just did not deliver. The characters of Liam and Zac are good and I could see how a man like Liam, who still had a lot of the surfer boy mentality about him, would fall for a person like Zac who had made some mistakes which he was trying to correct while still surviving in a world that would offer him no breaks.
The narrative is a little strange in that the characters change the nuances in their speech all the time, especially Liam. Whilst I understand that a surfer might retain certain shibboleths, Liam hasn’t been a surfer for a long time and only seems to mix with ‘non-surfers’. So when he, as a big businessman in his thirties, in Norfolk comes out with –
Some shit. I try not to eat a lot of meat. It isn’t good for the planet, man, all those beef farms and battery chickens. It ain’t right.
– it jars.
Especially the words ain’t and man, which carry quite a social subtext in the UK that isn’t relevant here. Additionally, the occasional words used by twenty-three-year-old, Zac are simply not age appropriate, such as – The Big Smoke or smog – these errors really threw me out of the story.
Then there is the ‘elephant in the room’; when is cheating not cheating? I understand the necessity of a long time rent-boy having to continue to ply his trade after meeting someone he is genuinely attracted to. Indeed, the author does allude to the fact that Zac is having trouble with disconnecting himself from his feelings when he is with ‘johns’ after being with Liam.
However, the character of Jamie gave me a few problems. Jamie is a junkie – also a rent-boy – and has been with Zac for years. Their relationship is complex but most easily described as close friends with benefits. They live together, although Jamie is often absent because of his drug habit and because he is working the streets. Jamie and Zac have sex with each other several times and at first, I could accept it as a means of comfort for these lost souls, but after Zac meets Liam and is finding it difficult to have sex with clients, he still has sex with Jamie.
At no time does Liam express jealousy about Jamie or even question his existence until it becomes essential. Apart from this seeming unlikely, it feels like cheating without consequences. I am glad, considering Zac is a recent heroin addict and a current prostitute that condoms are always mentioned. The principals do engage in unsafe sex practices, however, almost enforcing the idea many authors have regarding homosexual sex that the only ‘real sex’ is anal penetration, and all other activities are just ‘prelims’ and safe.
Considering the potential complexity of the plotline, the areas of conflict or concern are resolved far too easily. Liam’s company is an eco-friendly one, based on his and his dead husband’s ideals, and ploughs profits into an eco-music festival. So it seems a shame and somehow wrong that money is the source of all resolutions.
To conclude, Rented Heart is a well written novel with a potentially good plotline which unfortunately falls short of its potential. However, it may be that others may not have the same issues as I did, and I am sure many readers will enjoy it.