Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Review: Coffee Boy by Austin Chant

4 stars

For all its short length, Coffee Boy is an novella jam-packed with both romance and deep, emotive exploration of things that affect the characters.

The narrator, Kieran, is a young trans man who takes an internship in a politician's office (and Coffee Boy is ownvoices story when it comes to trans representation). The office's campaign strategist, Seth, is prickly and reserved, but his crush on their straight boss Marcus is plain as day to Kieran. With Marcus oblivious to both Seth's crush and the fact that he hasn't exactly provided Kieran with the trans-friendly workplace he promised, Seth and Kieran gradually form a workplace rapport that - on Kieran's part - slowly morphs into a crush of his own. 

I really liked the tentative way a relationship developed between Kieran and Seth. After Kieran gets only his initial dislike of the standoffish Seth, there's a one-step-forward-two-steps-back dynamic. Kieran pushes Seth's boundaries and Seth tries to find a balance between ensuring that Kieran is treated appropriately, and constantly centring Kieran's trans-ness in a way that reminds Kieran of his visibility and difference. 

The two of them are also feeling out each other in terms of being the only two non-cishet people in the workplace, and much of their early interaction includes this: by openly acknowledging Seth's crush on Marcus, Kieran has inadvertently caused Seth to come out to him as bisexual. Their different experiences and age gap mean that Kieran self-identifies as queer; but Seth still associates it with the slur. Kieran is also very aware that he is the one who is visibly non-cishet, who lives with the emotional toll of being constantly misgendered, of people wanting to be patted on the back for accepting him, and of having to pass as female at his job flipping burgers.

Some Goodreads reviewers have made mentions about the 'balance' between the romance and the discussions of gender identity and sexuality, either saying that they found it to be well-balanced or not. Personally, I'm not sure that you can talk about a balance, as though the two things can be separated out and weighed individually on opposite ends of a scale. The fact that Kieran is a trans man attracted to other men and Seth is a bisexual man impacts on who they are, the way they live their lives and interact with each other and the people around them. There is no way to gauge the romance except within that context. 

When Kieran and Seth fall into a relationship at the end, I loved the way that their tentativeness dropped away. They are open with each other; Kieran states that he wants to try dating Seth, and Seth makes it clear that their relationship will not affect Kieran's employment opportunities. The sex occurs organically, without any sense that there is something to be negotiated or figured out. 

Coffee Boy didn't go much past Kieran and Seth establishing their relationship. Objectively, I feel like that makes sense, since the book was really centred around them sounding each other out, both as queer colleagues and in a romantic sense. But that doesn't mean that, subjectively, I wouldn't have liked to see them further down the track, or have the novella be longer. But that's pretty standard for me and novellas, for all that I try not to judge them as though they were novels. 

As a novella, Coffee Boy had exceptional depth. I've talked about the relationship dynamic and the exploration of gender and sexuality, particularly in the workplace, but the other stand-out aspect for me was Kieran's dry, dark sense of humour, which is used to show his expectations about how people will treat him: 
Seth actually turns and scribbles something down on a pad of paper in front of him. Kieran can’t imagine what he’s writing. “Remind everyone in the office that new intern is a dude”? Or, probably more likely, “Fire whiny trans guy at earliest opportunity.” (8%)
Later in the story, Kieran also deploys his humour to keep Seth from taking himself too seriously, in a way that demonstrates how well-matched the two are. 

Overall, I really loved Coffee Boy, and the only thing that stopped me from giving it 4.5 stars is the fact that it's written in third-person present tense, which gives me a lot of trouble, as I wrote in the last review for a book I read in this style. This is obviously an intensely personal thing, so if it's not something that bothers you, mentally bump the rating up that half star. 

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