Rating: 4.25 stars
Jayden Walker has two goals in life, he wants to see the plays he wrote with his best friend, Gristle, performed at Wellington’s Tory Street Theater and he wants to meet his soul mate. But for now he and Gristle, brother of his soul and best friend, are struggling to make ends meet in a moldering plumbing challenged home, aka the hovel. On his walk home from a despondent meeting with the theater manager, he hears an accordion busker playing a tune of irresistible joy and hope. Drawn to that sound, he sees a small figure in a hoodie dancing on the street corner and spies a thatch of blond hair and an eyebrow divided by a scar. Something about the moment seems magical, but Jay hurries on as Gristle is expecting him home.
Jay waits tables to earn money, but things are so tight that Gristle decides to become an”escort” to get the extra money they need to put on their production. This decision tears Jay up inside and while Gristle says it doesn’t bother him, it is clear that it does but his mind won’t be changed. As Jay heads out to the public bathrooms, he sees the accordion musician being attacked by a man near the beach. Oddly enough, the busker is not fighting back, just letting the man pummel him. Jay runs up to intervene and stops the attack. The man under the hoodie is Lethe Cross ( a name heavy with portent). Jay and Lethe are pulled together by a mutual attraction that gets stronger which each meeting. But Lethe’s life is full of mystery. People keep calling him by different names, his head is always covered by a hood as he never wants his face to be seen, and won’t let Jay bring Gristle to meet him. The last is a huge bone of contention between Gristle and Jay. Before long Jay is being pulled in two opposite directions by the two people he loves the most and who need Jay more than they have ever needed him before. Gristle is hiding things from Jay and Lethe finally tells Jay that he is the last of his family that has carried a curse for over a century. The curse is slowly killing Lethe as all in his family have died young because of it. There is a way to end it but it may cost Jay everything he loves, even his life.
Never have I felt so ambivalent over such a beautifully written book. Authors Sunday and Gordon give us characters of heartbreaking beauty in the gorgeous setting of Wellington,the capital of New Zealand, where the ocean meets hills and nature is just a step away from civilized zones. Here the geological earthquakes are mirrored by the earthquakes of the heart and soul that happens to the characters in the book. Jay is our narrator, the actions of the others seen from his point of view. But that is not to say that Jay sees all that is happening around him with clarity. To the authors credit, the readers can see where Jay’s vision has become clouded by emotions in turmoil, we can see the storms coming even if we are helpless to stop them. I loved Jay. An artist dying to get his vision out to the public, he dreams of writing plays that people will see and he wants to accomplish this goal with Gristle, his “bro”, the brother of his soul, even if they are not related by blood. Jay also has a certain pragmatism about him. He does see that the bills get paid and hold down a job. Jay is gay and wants to find his soul mate. Gristle, his “bro” is Jay’s best friend and roommate. Gristle is straight and has a traumatic past that he has never recovered from. One of the things missing from the book is Gristle and Jay’s back story. I wanted to know how they met, under what circumstances did these two get together and become so bonded that they almost breathe in unison. Then there is Lethe Cross, the musician who turns out to be Jay’s soulmate. Lethe starts out as a complete mystery to Jay and the reader, although the name is a portent in every way as memory itself is a cross Lethe has to bear. As the little oddities about Lethe start to add up in Jay’s mind, they do so with us too. As person after person mistakes Lethe for people in their pasts, an aura of magic starts to pervade the story, and not in a good way. More in a Grimm’s fairy tale overtone, suffused with darkness and angst. When the truth behind the mystery is uncovered, we feel Lethe’s pain. His life has never been his, the curse brought on by an ancestor that everyone in his family had paid for with their lives. But for as much as I felt for Lethe, in some ways he remained a chimera for me, parts of him remaining as elusive as a wisp of smoke.
It is Gristle who is the heart of the story for me. It is Gristle who captured my heart. And it is Gristle who made me weep, bawling like a baby for the second half of the book. I was/am 100 percent invested in Gristle. His heart so huge, his love for Jay so all encompassing, so beautiful and pure. Their bond is one of precious metals and the red petals of the Pohutukawa tree. It is the two of them I loved. From their nightly excursions that Gristle surprised Jay with to help Jay step outside his inner boundaries to their “hovel” decorated with bits of their dreams and a room full of kites to fly. They were so magical that in many respects Lethe felt like the intruder Gristle came to regard him as. Neither Gristle nor I ever recovered from Lethe’s introduction into Jay’s life.
Something happens to Gristle halfway through the book and because of that event, I found myself so emotionally let down and distraught that I detached myself from the story and never quite recaptured the original feeling I had when I started the book. I feel Gristle deserved a better script that the one he was given. I know I felt that way right to the end. We all bring our personal baggage to the books we read that let’s us take one character over another into our hearts or takes one part of the story and highlights it above all the rest of its elements. Gristle was my focus here, my true north instead of Lethe and his mystery. You may find yourself feeling completely different. That possibility stems directly from the wonderful writing that is (Un)Masked.
I enjoyed learning things about Wellington, New Zealand from the official Christmas tree to the aboriginal magic that resides in its hills. That setting gave the story an extra layer that enriched it from start to finish. And I have a final quibble to leave you with. For all the pain, all the loss that occurs and reverberates through the story, at least at the end the enemy should have been defeated unequivocally, vanquished forever and we were not given even that satisfaction. It would have balanced out the darkness with the light of hope for total peace at last, at least for me. But where I found despair in the latter part of the story, others might find hope. So while I won’t ever be picking up this book to read again, the wonderful writing, the memorable characters, and the different ways people come to stories, lets me give this tale a 4.25 star rating and a recommendation for you all to pick it up. Drop me a line after you read it. I will be curious on what you take away from (Un)Masked.
Cover photograph by Caroline Wimmer, graphic layout by Anne Cain. I loved this cover. I only wish the font color and the mask were a wee bit lighter to make it easier to distinguish the names and title.