Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Review: The Gay Divorcee

The Gay Divorcee
Paul Burston

Published by Sphere

Reviewed by Liam Tullberg


The Gay Divorcee is Paul Burston’s fifth novel and explores themes of family, belonging and identity.

Successful bar owner and manager Phil Davies is looking forward to his civil partnership to the ever-pouting, rarely satisfied, substantially younger Ashley Grimshaw. All appears well as the big day looms ever closer, but of course, in fiction as in life, nothing ever runs smoothly, and the problem here is that Phil’s kept a rather large secret from his soon to be husband: that he was once – and technically still is - married to a woman, Hazel. And he has a nineteen year old son he’s never met and who’s closer to home than Phil can imagine. Talk about Jeremy Kyle...

The Gay Divorcee is a thoroughly entertaining read with excellent dialogue and empathetic, well-rounded characters that Burston weights appropriately. As in Armistead Maupin’s legendary Tales of the City series, the narrative alternates points of view from chapter to chapter. From Hazel’s dealing with the recent death of her long term partner, to Carl - Phil’s best mate - looking for love in the gay scene he’s long given up on, each subplot is engaging and supportive of the main conflicts of the novel. The ‘Bitchy Queen’ blog that is mysteriously created by one of the characters is particularly well dealt with, poking an acid tongue at the gay scene and drawing Burston’s attention to its shallow, inconsequential depths.

What works exceptionally well is Burston’s drawing a contrast between the London that has become home to Phil, and Bridgend, representative of the Welsh life that he long left behind. While Phil is living a hectic and seemingly fulfilled life in Soho, Hazel is at home in Wales with her mother, but refusing to be bitter towards him for the life with which he has left her. It is through this juxtaposition that Burston successfully explores the premise that family is found where it is sought, rather than being something you are born into.

Burston’s language and use of prose is confident and substantial. For example, it’s as easy for readers to visualise Phil’s bar in which regulars gather around the coveted ‘Table One’ to flick and bitch through copies of Boyz as it is to get inside the minds of the central characters.

Perhaps the only weakness of The Gay Divorcee is in the character of Ashley. Though it’s clear that this is a character to whom there are little more than two dimensions, it is rather hard to believe exactly what Phil finds attractive in him beyond the wonder of Wonderjocks. He behaves so unpleasantly throughout the novel that it’s almost as if an explanation, not an excuse, is needed for his actions. But perhaps this omission is reflective of a belief that some people simply look out for themselves, rather than anyone around them, as Ashley’s one-way friendship with Rik demonstrates through the novel.

The Gay Divorcee is a cutting and contemporary look at gay life, whether through the eyes of a gay man with a wife or a wife with a gay husband. It’s a must for anyone who’s been on the gay scene and met the many characters that Paul Burston has successfully brought to life.


Liam Tullberg is a Bristol-based author currently working on his novel, From the Darkness, and can be contacted through www.liamtullberg.com

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