Borrowing from the Buzzcock's song, the title immediately sets a bleak, slightly ironic tone which pervades the novel. Richard meets and falls in love with Luke at university, where they form a connection over their mutual working-class backgrounds and disdain of their privileged classmates, the 'Yahs'. Written with precision and economy, the chapters alternate between past and present, third and first person, as we learn of Luke's influential hold over Richard and the consequences of it nearly a decade on. Long-repressed memories of the tragedy that haunts Richard's past and tore him away from Luke are triggered into confrontation by the disruptive arrival of the protagonist's younger sister Stephie, and her fractured friend Loren. Stephie, struggling with issues in her own life and adamant to emulate her brother's escape from the stagnation of their ex-mining town, coaxes out of Richard the reasons he left in the first place and the silence that followed.
Strachan never makes Richard's homosexuality a clichéd novelty, and therefore a heterosexual audience should not feel alienated. This is not a gay novel; this is a novel about unrequited love and the things it makes us do, with a protagonist who just happens to be gay. As a straight 19 year old female, I found this aspect of the book completely accessible, and it is a credit to Strachan's approach that she makes the reader so comfortable.
The characters are depicted as fragmented, conflicted and flawed, and therefore, human. Whether you like them or not, or agree with their decisions, it is impossible not to sympathise with their sheer honesty. Luke, the object of Richard's infatuation, is dark, seductive, and the type of person whose disreputableness is exactly what makes him so irresistible. An enigma even to himself, his thoughts and motivations are nuances which Richard and everyone else are constantly trying to penetrate and unravel. Even ten years down the line, Richard wonders what exactly happened back then. I think it's fair to say that dangerous, dissolute Luke is the impetus of the novel. He is the link between past and present, as well as the knife edge on which the plot balances. Paralleling the nature of an unrequited obsession, every thought and every action is a tributary that finds its twisted route back to Luke. He, or the concept of him, is the magnetic centre of the novel, sucking everything into him like a vacuum.
The rural, coastal and city settings evoke atmosphere and have as much to say as the characters. Strachan utilizes other quirky literary devices to further immerse her readers, such as the alternating chapters weaving through one another and building suspense--all those depicting Richard's time at university titled simply '0' and providing what Strachan called the 'bassline' of the novel and the dialogue within flowing seamlessly with thought and action in Richard's memory, in lieu of quotation marks. Additionally, around halfway through, the mystery surrounding Richard's diaspora and self-inflicted isolation is revealed off-hand, changing the question at the heart of the novel from 'What happened?' to 'How did that happen?'
Raw, subtle, compassionately written and endearingly frank, this novel about not fitting in and how the past shapes us really packs a punch. Highly recommended.