Two Tribes, Fearne Hill
Rating: 5 Stars
Publisher: Self Published
Genre: Gay Romance
Tags: Part NA, Part Adult, Emotional, Second Chances, Hurt/Comfort. TW: Depression, Mentions of Suicide Attempts, Self-Harm, Death of Secondary Character(s)
Length: 321 Pages
Purchase At: amazon
It’s 1995, and troubled seventeen-year-old Matt Leeson harbours three passions: indie music, wartime history, and the posh boy he sits next to in maths class. Not in that order. One of those passions is closely guarded, along with a few other secrets Matt tucks away. Such as his abusive father, the cramped run-down flat he calls home, and the futility of his dreams to escape both.
Twenty-five years later, and plodding Dr Alex Valentine, recently divorced, is looking back on a life less lived. On his failed marriage and the dull bore he’s become, on the empty, lonely weekends stretching ahead. And, in a corner of his mind, wondering what could have been, if only a slender, raven-haired young man hadn’t so abruptly vanished all those years ago.
First love. Teenage love. It should be nothing more than an opening chapter, right? A short prologue even, before the real test of adulthood begins.
But what if that chapter never closes?
Written with a light touch but please be kind to yourselves and observe trigger warnings for: death of a secondary character, depression, domestic abuse (off page), self-harm (off page), attempted suicide (off page).
I’ve never read Fearne Hill before so I tentatively downloaded this as a sample around the time the book came out. I then promptly forgot about it until a couple of days ago when I needed something to fill in time when I was at a loose end. Right from the beginning I knew two things, 1) I was ridiculous for waiting so long to read this book, and 2) the characters had me right from the outset. Fearne Hill is another one of those clever English writers that I’ve often gravitated towards. I’m incredibly glad the reading planets made me get with the program and read Two Tribes.
This book, set in 1995 for the first part – approximately half of the book is spent with two 17/18 year old MCs – very cleverly has each chapter headed up by a (mostly) alternative/indie muso or band and their songs – oh, how I still love Bitter Sweet Symphony by The Verve, and These Days, Powderfinger, is a major Aussie classic. The book’s title already made me leap back a decade to the 80’s song of the same name by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, it’s literally the reason I grabbed the sample in the first place. The title struck me as a euphemism for the British class structure alive and well in West Midlands Stourbridge in 1995. The rich kids who stay at the local school with extra tuition and Rugby matches to fortify them, and the poor kids who have nowhere else to go, no particular things to aspire to. And sex education was about heterosexuality. Absolutely zilch for any questioning /LGBT+ teens.
Matthew Leeson is a bright kid, good at most subjects, who excels in modern history. He lives with his brother, an abusive father and an avoidant mother in a council estate flat. He has two really tight friends – Brenner, who also lives in the council estate and has residual anger from losing his father, and the third member of this band of brothers is Phil, who’s lucky enough to be part of a loving family in a more pleasant part of town. The three of them aren’t always the nicest to students, especially Brenner, but they unequivocally have each other’s backs. Then there’s ‘Alexander bloody Valentine’, as Matt refers to him, who Matthew ends up unofficially tutoring in maths after a detention situation. Alex’s life couldn’t be anymore different. He’s fortunate enough to come from an upper white collar family with loving parents and plenty of opportunities. Lots of hope that he’ll go to university to study medicine when he finishes high school. Something Matt doesn’t have the luxury of or support to do.
Matt lies about his family, for obvious reasons, gets a lift home from school from Matt in his sensible VW Polo when he can, while being very adept at not allowing Alex to see where he actually lives. He educates Alex about ‘good’ music and bands and makes mixtapes for him to listen to so he can hear all of their best songs. He also likes to rearrange things on him as a surprise. Meanwhile, Alex’s family are very accepting of Matt, feed him when he’s over, organise some tickets to a concert, all the while Matt’s out of his depth with Alex but, nonetheless, he’s falling.
Where Matt is barely contained frustration and sadness, with a brashness that is necessary for survival, Alex is the type of kid you take home to meet the parents – he’s solid, sensible, happy, Matt loves to rib him about his slow driving, and he’s kind and gentle without being a pushover. He’s also blond, built, and plays Rugby. Matt, who knows he’s same-sex attracted, also knows his type… and it’s Alex bloody Valentine. The two boys grow close while Matt keeps this ‘friendship’ to himself, it wouldn’t go well if anyone were to question it or suspect his desires. The only person who works it out is Denise, a girl Matt works with part-time and goes to school with and fucks as a convenience while he stares into the eyes of Kurt Cobain on a poster above her. We see Matt’s and Alex’s attraction building quite clearly even though at this stage it’s purely Matt’s POV. We see Alex’s desire co-mingled with fear about his connection, his attraction to Matt. He’s not gay. He likes girls, but…
“I want to kiss you again,” he blurted. His eyes were shiny with unshed tears, his voice choked with horror. “That’s why I’ve been staying away from you. Christ, Matt. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I want to kiss you again.”
Even though there’s a conflict of teenage emotions, Alex doesn’t allow it to stop him from bravely trying out something with Matt. That is until the shit hits the fan and their connection is severed until twenty-five-years later. We do take a short layover in 2005, including a frustrating near miss, before we move ahead another fifteen years.
Told in three parts, Two Tribes had a very similar impact on me as Barbara Elsborg’s The Story of Us, only the first isn’t quite as angsty as the latter. What they have in common, though, is enduring love, second chances, and a well crafted and utterly visceral story with lovingly written characters who are unforgettable and refuse to let you go.
There are two POV but they are split up into different parts. We got Matt’s POV first, eventually Alex’s. This allowed things to intersect nicely from 1995 to contemporary times. We get to see what happened to both young men into 40’s men, life’s impact on them then to what’s happening and being felt now.
This is a glorious, poetic, emotional story. It features two brilliant MCs I won’t be forgetting anytime soon. Matt is a mix of infuriating and vulnerable and makes you want to shake him then wrap him up and keep him safe, not that he’d let you. Alex was a bit clueless when he was a seventeen-turning-eighteen year old boy. He had a protective cocoon spun around him by his loving family and their economic stability, everything Matt didn’t. Alex was sweet and saw the world in a mostly genteel kind of way. Plus Matt was so good at flying under the radar in regards to the dunghill that was his life, not many would work it out. That we get to fully know that Alex always wanted to hold on tight to Matt, adores him, was perfect. They’re a wonderful pair.
Bits and Pieces:
I’m a fair age and I know the potency of friends as family in the gay community. That did get a deft touch here. Like everything else in the story, the author doesn’t accost the reader with any particular information but certainly makes everything multidimensional and layered with emotion. So, while I don’t want to say too much, I just want to raise a glass to Cartwright and Eric, and Phil, and Brenner….
I really appreciated My Beautiful Laundrette getting a guernsey in this book. Culture Club as well. Both so integral in how a queer young lad might feel seen in a hetero-washed world. Both the movie and the video clips are favourites of Matt’s. He loved Daniel Day-Lewis and Boy George. They showed him that who he was was alright. That there was hope when others might tell you being gay gave you none.
The triggers were all handled sensitively. There was enough input without overload to make Matt’s mental health feel real. One of the questions I ask people when I suspect depression is, “do you feel like you want to run away?” and most people look at me with surprise when I do because they’ve felt the desire. Anger often coexists alongside sadness, especially for men. I felt you, Matt. I also know the impact family has and this book definitely highlights that. Childhood attachment, our family of origin, is a powerful thing, trauma left untreated often becomes complex and chaotic.
“How are you feeling?” he asked.
“How do you think?” Bloody stupid question.
“I dunno.” He shrugged. “Happy to be in my devastating company? Glad to be alive? Full of gratitude someone phoned for an ambulance? Again?”
“They should feel free to walk on by next time.”
I was appreciative that Hill added her Author’s Note at the beginning about UK legislation Section 28 – that schools and local authorities from 1988-2003 in England and Wales were not allowed to ‘promote homosexuality’. Depriving English and Welsh teens from learning about anyone who was diverse and/or questioning. That it was okay to be you. There have been some horrid laws over the years around same-sex attraction, about being ‘different’ in any way, and this was just another example. It’s the silent political backdrop alongside the loud and proud musical soundtrack of the youth of Matt Leeson and Alex Valentine. Then when they reconnected twenty-five years later. Long may they be comfortable and happy together. Two Tribes is unbelievably good storytelling. 5 Stars!
“You still do, you know,” he said in almost a whisper after I’d failed to hide a yawn.
“I still do what?”
“Shine brightly, Alex.”