Book review: Earth by John Boyne

Wednesday, April 17, 2024 Permalink

Earth by John Boyne is the second in the loosely linked series. I read Water in late 2023 and it was a tumultuous read. I didn’t realise how much I enjoyed it but cried when closing the book on discovering that another in the series was coming.

Earth didn’t have quite the same impact but Boyne again manages to unfurl a complex and tragic backstory as shocking events unfold in the present. Here, the focus is Evan – who we briefly meet in Water – which ends as he’s escaping the small Irish island that was his home.

Book review: Earth by John BoyneEarth
by John Boyne
Published by Doubleday
on 23/04/2024
Source: Penguin Random House Australia
Genres: General Fiction, Literary Fiction
ISBN: 0857529838
Pages: 176

It’s the tabloid sensation of the two well-known footballers standing in the dock, charged with sexual assault, a series of vile text messages pointing towards their guilt. As the trial unfolds, Evan Keogh reflects on the events that have led him to this moment.

Since leaving his island home, his life has been a lie on many levels. He’s a talented footballer who wanted to be an artist. A gay man in a sport that rejects diversity. A defendant whose knowledge of what took place on that fateful night threatens more than just his freedom or career. The jury will deliver a verdict but, before they do, Evan must judge for himself whether the man he has become is the man he wanted to be.

In Water we learn that Evan is a talented soccer player (footballer, as this is set in the UK!) but his passion is painting. As he explains it though…

I was no artist. I was just good at painting. In the same way my father was good at football but was no footballer.  p 17

In the present he’s in court as an accomplice to a rape. As someone accused of filming an act of rape and not stopping it taking place. The lead perpetrator is the charismatic Robbie, who Evan fancies. Their lawyer claims she isn’t going to put the victim on trial or make judgements about her behaviour. Though does just that.

Amidst the court case however we travel back to Evan’s arrival in England. After a brief stint on a farm he’s in a pub when he meets someone who offers to pay him for his time. A sugar-daddy we think… until the man tells him it was an audition and he can get him more work. Desperate for the money Evan says yes becoming (as he puts it) a rent-boy. Until things get out of control. With his dreams of becoming a painter quashed he approaches a football club and surprisingly gets a chance to prove himself.

Which brings us back to the present and a few years into his life as a professional footballer. He’s not publicly out of the closet as it’d take the focus away from his football but it’s known to his colleagues that he’s gay and seemingly not an issue.

In my review of Water I comment on Boyne’s perfectly timed telling of Vanessa’s history and it’s the same here. We wade through the past, reaching the present just as the court case is wrapping up. And we’re in Evan’s head throughout so given an amazing insight into his feelings, thoughts and actions. And they’re very nuanced. He’s a deep thinker and far more aware than one might expect. So we’re privy to those doubts, those questions and the continued sense of displacement he feels as someone who’s playing a role they didn’t ask for.

Often he tells people he didn’t want to be a footballer. And it’s true. He doesn’t understand the adulation and awe that others have for his talent or for the sport. Ultimately he accepts it’s potentially a means to an ends. Content to never making the Premier League but wealthy enough for early retirement and time then to…. to what he seems to wonder.

He asks whether we are guilty or not guilty, and, before she can reply, I turn my eyes to the heart of the courtroom and imagine, for a moment, the life I might have enjoyed had my talents been in my hands rather than my feet. The art I might have created. They joy I might have given. The friends I might have made. They lovers I might have taken. The life I might have built. The happiness I might have felt. p 148

Like Water this book is about a timely and contemporary issue – particularly as it relates to social media, the lack of privacy and murky world of lives lived online. There’s also that confronting reminder of ‘our’ propensity to fete or worship people with talent (whether they be sportspeople or singers). Again Boyne doesn’t approach the issue issue of sexual assault with naïve subtlety, but nor does he ram it down readers’ throats. He trusts us to be: horrified and disgusted; and confronted yet unsurprised.

The title of this book is referenced early on – with Evan’s mother talking about the smell of the earth after rain. But it’s more than that as there’s a constant reference to it… Evan’s groundedness and something that will ultimately set him apart from his contemporaries and may allow him to live with himself.

Earth by John Boyne will be published in Australia by Penguin Books and available in late April 2024.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes. 


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