To Live With What You Are

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Charlie Gracie
Postbox Press

When the reclusive and troubled James meets daring art student Maura, their connection is instant. Soon enough, they embark on a relationship which circles around one of life’s big questions: is it better to live well, or authentically? And more to the point, what if your authentic self is monstrous?

Gracie wastes no time with an answer. We meet them as they drown a young mother together, and the novel becomes a dark relay race up to this act and beyond. Familiar tropes of coming-of-age, the meet-cute, a married couple rediscovering the spark all make an appearance, but where you might expect love, Gracie substitutes a killing.

Contemporary Glasgow is their hunting ground. The affluent world of the West End and the city’s more neglected suburbs are sharply observed. Though many locations aren’t specifically named, I’d be confident locating the exact Lidl, art gallery, and hilltop residential area that appear in early chapters.

However, attention to detail spills over into the minutiae of James’s life, with much time given to everyday routine. There’s an edge of American Psycho’s perfectionist obsession but, rather than expose the lovebirds as monsters who camouflage their murderous desires with normality, the third-person perspective means it reads more as a deliberate effort to humanise their actions.

And this is a problem. As much as I wish I could recommend the book as a thrill ride, one very late fumble gives me pause. Given the effort Gracie spends subverting expectations of romance, the biggest shock comes in the form of a stereotype that goes completely unexamined: the gay child predator.

In two brief flashbacks, James is targeted: once in a truck, once in a public toilet, the latter met with retaliatory violence. The positioning of these sections comes across as an explanatory twist for his bloodlust, but if that’s not the case, they’re entirely gratuitous. Either way, while not every story requires queer representation, nameless predatory gays as a contextualisation of your protagonist’s murderous impulses is not the way to do it.

Overall, the book is a clever and compelling read. We’re given just enough insight to understand these characters could never bear to be inauthentic, adding up to a twisty psychological romance with flashes of intense violence, and a row of shallow graves taking the place of a good life’s milestones. But for a story which dances around the question of nature or nurture, many readers could find the final stretch disappointingly narrow in its worldview.

—Ryan Vance