Complete reviews from Goodreads:
Alexis Hall, author of Boyfriend Material ·
Basically where I’m going with this is as regards Hugh is that the book shines with all the compromises it doesn’t make—its influences are specific, politically dense, and unabashedly somewhat niche, the language is self-consciously archaic, and the evocation of place and time paramount. The characters are nuanced and complex—occasionally to the point of opacity—and not always sympathetic.
But, y’know, what? I kind of loved the book for this. It’s so unabashedly itself that it will absolutely sweep you along if you let it, and I was very much in the mood to be swept. I feel it was probably too long, and the pacing suffers in places, but it’s not like the books this is modelled on where renowned for their slim volume and taut plotting.
‘Hugh’ has the flavour of a queer Tom Jones or a queerer Tristram Shandy (in fact, I think both novels get a reference, alongside a handful of 18th century bildungsroman) and manages to chart a successful stylistic path between feeling like a homage to those works while still feeling like a uniquely modern twist on them. This is a genuinely impressive accomplishment, as is the satirical tone, and the archness of dialogue.
And obviously I was very here for all the queerness—even though navigating it in a restrictive, patriarchal, heteronormative society is a major theme of the book. Hugh himself is a complicated protagonist: both arrogant and insecure, privileged and marginalised, witty, careless and, err, constantly making terrible decisions. But then he’s also very young and part of the pleasure of a coming-of-age story is watching the protagonist come to a better understanding of both themself and the world they inhabit. In Hugh’s case this story intersects with his identity in fascinating ways: the stakes feel higher for him because he must learn how to find a place for himself amidst the hostility and inevitable secrecy that surrounds him.
This does take the book—for all his rompish satire—to some pretty dark places. There’s violence, the spectre of sexual assault, familial rejection, a blackmail plot that is incredibly stressful to read about and is resolved in way that feels like a tainted triumph to say the least. It’s also not a romance in the genre romance sense, although it doesn’t present itself as one. There are however strong romantic elements that play a significant role in the book, as Hugh tries to navigate the intricacies of three different relationships: an adolescent passion that crashes against the rocks of immaturity, a complicated not-quite-friendship with a man who is unable to sacrifice the comforts of heteronormativity, and … whatever the fuck Hugh had with Brent, the boxer dude at the end. Who, for the record, I super hated.
All the relationships offer a different perspective on queer unions while also exploring aspects of the Sublime and Beautiful (in the Edmund Burke sense, rather than general). Except part of the issue for me here was that, while I was neutrally sympathetic to the first two, I really needed Brent (for all he had a kind of raw charismatic power to him) to jump off a bridge somewhere. A boxer, a politician, and a national hero, he is determined to live openly (and the way Hugh navigates this with him is fascinating) but he’s also got a very specific and unyielding idea of what that will be like i.e. that Hugh will basically play wife to him while he gads about following his ambitions. And while Brent is explicitly meant to represent the Sublime, which—if I remember my Burke properly—is meant to be an experience of terror as much as anything … I’m not sure it was quite the right sort of terror I was feeling? He did come across as a force of nature, seeking and demanding the impossible. But he also came across as an abusive prick whose idea of gender dynamics, while they may have well been informed by his context, would have been immediately unpalatable had Hugh not been a male character. Of course, I’m slightly looking at the relationship with my “consumer of kissing books” hat on. It worked as part of the tapestry of the novel. It just also made me deeply uncomfortable, in ways I think it both was and was not meant to.
In any case: I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Hugh’ and it gave me a lot to think about, up and including the application of eighteen and nineteenth century philosophy to queer identity. So that was fun? While it’s a longish read, and may not be for everyone, if the idea of it is even a bit little appealing to you I sincerely recommend you pick it up. As a reader you have to meet it where it’s at, but as long as you can do that, this is a unique and exhilarating journey. I think the only way to experience anything quite like it would be to literally read Smollett, and ‘Hugh’ is, honestly, a lot more fun.
This is a hero without a novel in its picaresque approach to plot, but it’s also a novel without a hero because Hugh is really unsympathetic: spiteful, selfish, and almost completely incapable of managing any aspect of his own life. Obviously this is deliberate–he’s young, he has a manipulative father, he’s in the weird position of being both grossly privileged and terrifyingly marginalised in a way that damages him profoundly from the start. Which all makes him an interesting rather than likeable character to spend time with.
It’s about queer relationships (NOT A ROMANCE, just to be clear) in a way that clearly ties into Burke’s conception of the sublime and the beautiful. Unfortunately I have forgotten everything I might ever have known about Burke, and I didn’t quite feel the book gave me enough to make that work as it might do for someone better versed in the subject. We have Hugh with James Bramble, a beautiful young man who he more or less destroys, then with an older patron-type who can’t let go of his desires for love and sex with men but is also desperate for a heteronormative life (possibly this is the Burkean idea of reverence?), and finally with Richard Brent, a boxer and popular hero who represents the sublime (awe and terror). This part was fascinating in that the writing accelerated, the plot whipped along, a really awful problem was solved in a brutal and uncomfortable manner that nobody was happy about, and I felt fully convinced that Hugh regarded Brent as sublime without in any way agreeing with him. You say sublime, I say controlling arsehole with a feminising fetish, let’s call the whole thing off.
I did not quite buy into the ending with Brent and Hugh’s confrontation with his family: it felt a bit of a fantasy (in part because a similar conversation was had in a dream sequence earlier and I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, or for the entire Brent sequence to be revealed as delirium tremens). But then, the turn for the implausible is absolutely in keeping with the Georgian novels this is based on. God, this repays thinking about.
Basically, I found it absolutely fascinating, though it was quite a difficult read in many ways. There’s a lot of homophobia and a really intense blackmail plot, and a lot of abuse treated as routine by the characters, so beware. (And I have to put in my usual howl of anguish at Americans writing regional British accents ‘phonetically’. Just, could we not.)
Sui generis, thoroughly interesting, fabulously vivid in place and time, and I’m glad I read it. I had an ARC, as recommended to me by Alexis Hall.