When I contact him for an interview, acclaimed writer Adam Mars-Jones warns me that his local connection with Box Hill and Surrey, despite the title of his new novel, is minimal. This, however, turned out to be largely irrelevant. The local Leatherhead landmark worked as a sort of symbol for what the novel was trying to represent, which in many ways turned out to reflect the hill itself, once I started looking at it in a different way.
Box Hill, the winner of the Fitzcarraldo Novel Prize 2019 (and thus sporting the same distinctive blue jacket as Olga Tokarczuk’s phenomenally successful Flights) only uses the hill itself as a way to get the narrative going. It follows the story of Colin, an obese gay teenager in the 1970s whose self-esteem is so low that, over the course of the book, he frequently made me feel like an alpha male (when I’m anything but) – the book’s subtitle is, of course, “A Story of Low Self-Esteem.” The novel opens when, during a trip to Box Hill on his eighteenth birthday, Colin accidentally trips over Ray, a charismatic, hypermasculine biker, while he’s sleeping. Because, in 1975, Box Hill was a biker hangout. Upon meeting Ray, Colin gives him a blow job and subsequently moves in with him, becoming somewhere in-between a romantic partner and a sex slave.
Of course, Box Hill today is very different. When I think about it, it brings to mind not bikers and very very long-term BDSM but family walks and childhood trips to Smith and Western, complete with gaudy sparkly hats. It’s the kind of place that screams “families with young kids.” Once you get away from all that, though, the place has a stunning natural beauty; the trees seem to writhe around each other in a sort of warlike collaboration, often creating woodland so aesthetically pleasing it’s like sculpture. Surrey can, to someone who’s lived there all their life, seem bland when it comes to nature, but Box Hill is a treat, something I’ve only recently begun to notice. ‘I don’t know the place at all well,’ Mars-Jones admits. ‘I visited in about 1999 (which was when the story was written, as a matter of fact) and noted journalistically the way the biker presence was being tidied away and the wholesome beauty-spot element given prominence.’ Indeed, thinking of the place as a biker hangout now is the equivalent of seeing pictures of your parents as youths, smoking and in leather, a comforting presence that has a wilder past.
Mars-Jones chose the place through anecdote rather than personal experience. ‘I was told the basic story in the late 1990s by an acquaintance as something that had happened to him, a formative experience in fact, so Box Hill as a setting was there from the start.’ Much like Box Hill itself, Mars-Jones’ depiction of the gay subcultures of the 1970s merely uses reality as a springboard, otherwise delving into more hyperreal territory. ‘The relationship depicted bears no relation to actual sexual subcultures either then or since!’ he says. ‘Real-life SM or BDSM is likely to be both more stylised and more extreme, but what I wanted from my artificial variant was the constant swerving from Alan Bennett’s territory to Genet’s, from cosy to stark, without transitions, leaving the reader to decide, page by page rather than once and for all, what was touching and what was horrifying, and where this coupling fitted on the continuum of relationships. Likewise, I’m ignorant of motorcycle mechanics . . . and the history of biker subcultures but put in enough plausible detail and sociological reflection for the whole thing not to come off the road, with any luck. Readers may not even notice that there seem to be no straight bikers in this world!’ He adds that ‘there was a structural similarity between erotic abduction fantasy and narrative of first love,’ which would ‘allow me to dispense with orthodox character drawing when it came to the (preposterous) figure of Ray. This allowed me to maintain . . . the instability of tone that I was after, where crudity and subtlety, comedy and tragedy, sincerity and black joke are allowed to bleed into each other.’
Which brings us back to Box Hill itself. Much like the clash between the cosiness of my own family memories and its seedy biker past, the very name of the place, in Mars-Jones’ view at least, is linguistically dissonant, a clash of connotations. ‘Obviously it refers to a particular place on the map, but just as a pairing of words it has a richness and a contradiction,’ he says. ‘The rhythm is very definite. “Box” suggests enclosure and secrecy while a hill is something open, visible from a distance. There’s no overlap of letters between the two words, as there is between (say) “war” and “peace” or “crime” and “punishment”. It’s as if they square up to each other.’ This is, in many ways, what the book it about; two fundamentally different worlds squaring up against each other, the garish and frightening world of Ray and the cosy world of Colin. In depicting this, the books succeeds wholeheartedly.