An intriguing novella of some 145 pages, Venus as a Boy traces the tale of a youth both bullied and a bully growing up in the Orkney Isles to the streets of Soho and the world of drag queens, alcohol and abuse.
The early story is a vivid portrait of life in the remote and desolate Scottish islands – if anything really did go wrong, what with Orkney being so remote, you’d be fucked – the unappreciated rugged beauty associated with total boredom. Setting fire to fields, gangs and best friends fighting with each other, navigating a dysfunctional family is the tone of Sutherland’s semi-autobiographical story. But it’s the outsider, Finola, who becomes our narrator’s bestie – but such is the horror of taunted verbal and physical abuse by the bored gangs, Eva, the reclusive, slightly crazy Czech aristocrat, takes her daughter off the island in a hurry.
The stillness killed me…It was though they’d left in the middle of things…The bedroom still smelled of them. Of the three of us. The bed was unmade. I tried to see the shapes of their bodies embedded in the sheets…In the end I stripped and raked through the cupboards. Found a petticoat and vest that fitted and smelled so much of the love they had given me…I went back there every day. Dressed up in their clothes. After time I smuggled the clothes back to my bedroom. First off I just wore them in bed, but as the shit with my dad got worse, as his rage made him insane, I wanted to be with Finola all the time.
It’s time spent with his girlfriend, Tracy, that he discovers his gift for sex and reducing his partners to grateful tears and ecstasy. It’s a skill set he takes with him first to Glasgow and then the streets of London, a skill that brings him a mix of joy and grief: unexpected love affairs, sexual encounters – All girls at first. I shagged the boss’s wife in the walk-in fridge; Saturday-night line-ups with a handful of waitresses. Guests galore after that. Off-duty police on the roof terrace; prom queens from the Bible Belt; the gorgeous boys I buggered in the copse across the river… they always ended up in tears or trances, convinced they’s glimpsed Heaven or heard the voices of the dead.
Sadly, these later sections of sexual conquest having left the island for work in London’s sex trade loses a deal of magic in its prose and storytelling. But at this stage Venus as a Boy takes on extra layers of poignancy as he looks to recapture his first love. First, the gorgeous Wendy (formerly Elliot) comes into his life and when he loses her, she is replaced by Pascal, a neo-Nazi abused sexually aggressively by the narrator.
Venus as a Boy is equally strange and beautiful: part poem, part queer myth with its indented paragraphs and single line entries. An experiential narrative that denies description – hence the degree of quotation from this slight, often sordid, frequently engaging story.