I thoroughly enjoyed Fiona Graph’s first novel Things That Bounded because of the wonderfully detailed historical context she wove around her story. Here she does the same for her characters Theo and Zac, who meet during WWII and survive Dunkirk together. After this experience they become lovers. Theo works at Bletchley Park with Alan Turing, then goes to work in the Foreign Office after the war, while Zac works for MI6. They have a good life. However, this is a time where the love they’ve found with each other, isn’t accepted in the way it is now. Homosexuality is a crime and it’s not hard to imagine how stressful it must be to hide your true self as soon as you leave your front door. The pressure of being an outcast takes it toll on their mental health, with Zac becoming so severely depressed he has to go away. Can this beautiful relationship survive?
I love how Fiona Graph creates her characters, then uses them to drive the story forward. There’s a quiet bravery in their choice to be together in a society doesn’t accept them. The fact that they’re establishment figures is interesting too, both working as civil servants for a system of government that actively persecuted them. The fear of being outed, particularly at work, must have been incredible. Add to that the very real fear of being assaulted, arrested and ultimately being jailed for nothing more than loving each other. There’s the loneliness too, where straight couples can be open and make connections with their neighbours or work colleagues, these men can’t. They can’t invite anyone into their lives and be honest about their love for each other. This means avoiding friendships and relying solely on each other, placing further strain on the couple; they have to be everything to each other. This intensity is hard to maintain and I was so invested in their love for each other, that I was genuinely upset when the pressure became too much.
The author presents the mundane everyday things that happen when two people live together, because of course the men live just like any other couple, gay or straight. She does this by showing their routine, the domestic detail of everyday life is touching. This is all Zac and Theo want, the ability to live like anyone else. It makes us realise how brave men of this generation had to be, just to have what a straight couple probably takes for granted. It drives home the sense of injustice they must have felt. It seems galling that they fought side by side like every other man in WWII, but back in the ordinary world they have to live with a terrible fear of betrayal and prosecution. I kept reading as I was longing for their love to triumph over everything. However unrealistic that might be. The author’s setting was beautifully evoked and I felt firmly in the mid – 20th Century. I felt the most important thing Graph succeeds in doing is to show us, through these characters, the experience of so many men who were vilified and criminalised for loving the ‘wrong’ person. Yet we never feel that Theo and Zac are just ciphers created for this purpose. They feel wholly real and I was so involved with their emotional journey that I almost expected to look up from my book and see them there. Also, this could have been relentlessly miserable, but it isn’t. There’s something hopeful and uplifting about their courage and their enduring love for each other. I truly wanted them to triumph over the obstacles that faced them and for their love, despite the challenges it brings, to remain undimmed.
Meet The Author
Fiona Graph lives in London.
Her first novel, ‘Things That Bounded‘, was published in October 2020.
‘Beloved Ghost’ is her second novel