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It’s 1995, and troubled seventeen-year-old Matt Leeson harbours three passions: indie music, wartime history, and the posh boy he sits next to in maths class. Not in that order. One of those passions is closely guarded, along with a few other secrets Matt tucks away. Such as his abusive father, the cramped run-down flat he calls home, and the futility of his dreams to escape both.
Twenty-five years later, and plodding Dr Alex Valentine, recently divorced, is looking back on a life less lived. On his failed marriage and the dull bore he’s become, on the empty, lonely weekends stretching ahead. And, in a corner of his mind, wondering what could have been, if only a slender, raven-haired young man hadn’t so abruptly vanished all those years ago.
First love. Teenage love. It should be nothing more than an opening chapter, right? A short prologue even, before the real test of adulthood begins.
But what if that chapter never closes?
Fearne Hill’s Two Tribes is a funny, touching and heartrending romance set across three decades in which we follow two teenagers from the Midlands as they fall in love (think Heartstopper but with class differences and a lot more snark and swearing!), are separated by circumstance and reunite twenty-five years later. It’s beautifully written with an absolutely wonderful sense of time and place; I was a bit older than the two protagonists in 1995, when the first half of the story is set, but the picture the author paints is no less a recognisable one, the attitudes, the language, the overall feel of that time – it’s all wonderfully (and sometimes uncomfortably) familiar.
Seventeen-year-old Matthew Leeson is extremely bright. He’s funny, he’s sharp, he’s gobby, a bit of a troublemaker at school – and he’s also gay, a secret he works incredibly hard to keep, making sure to act like one of the lads when it comes to all the shit they talk about girls and sex. He lives on a crappy council estate with his abusive father, neglectful mother and siblings he doesn’t have much to do with, and his real family is his two best mates, Phil and Brenner, who are as different from each other as they are from Matt, but the three of them are solid and look out for each other.
Alex Valentine is Matt’s opposite in every way. He lives in a nice house, with parents who love and encourage him, he’s doing well at school (although not as well as Matt) and has a good university place lined up (he’s going to be a doctor), he’s popular, plays for the school rugby team… in short, he’s everything Matt isn’t and everything Matt shouldn’t want.
Matt and Alex have very little to do with each other at school, until Alex ends up getting a detention (because of something Matt and his mates do) and afterwards, as Matt is walking to the bus stop in the pissing rain, Alex pulls up alongside him in the zippy little car he shares with his sister and offers Matt a lift home. Wary, but preferring it to getting drenched, Matt accepts, and proceeds to take the micky out of Alex’s in-car CD collection (Boyz 2 Men, Celine Dion, Wet Wet Wet – they’re Alex’s sister’s – really!) before asking to be dropped off somewhere miles from the estate, not wanting Alex to see the shithole he lives in. Not long after this, Matt and Alex end up sitting next to each other in maths; Matt realises Alex isn’t great at it (not as good as he is, anyway) and starts coaching him a bit. As the lesson is the last of the day, Alex offers Matt another lift; Matt again doesn’t let Alex drive him to his home. During more maths coaching and more lifts home, Matt and Alex develop an unlikely friendship (and Matt decides he also needs to improve Alex’s taste in music!). Weeks and months pass as Matt realises that what he’s feeling for Alex is something way beyond friendship, but Alex is straight and even if he weren’t, he’s way out of Matt’s league.
That all changes after a night out in town when, after they’ve been to a Pogues gig and are wandering around, Alex pulls Matt into a shadowy doorway and kisses him. It’s awkward – it’s wonderful – it’s terrifying. The weeks that follow are the happiest of Matt’s life – until a tragedy rips his world apart and sends him running.
This first part of the story – almost half – takes place in 1995 (in Matt’s PoV), then we jump to 2005 for a short middle section told in both PoVs, and then to the ‘now’ in Alex’s PoV. I won’t say too much about the plot, but if you’ve read the blurb, you’ll know that it’s twenty-five years before Alex and Matt meet again, and we discover that life has not been especially kind to either of them, albeit in different ways. Alex is recently divorced with a teenaged son and wondering if, at forty-two, life has passed him by. Maybe his ex-wife was right about him being too staid and boring… but he can’t help wondering, at times – what would his life have been if his beautiful, dark-eyed boy hadn’t vanished without a trace all those years ago?
Matt and Alex are brilliantly drawn, complex and very real, in both teenage and ‘grown-up’ incarnations. Matt is a scrappy, prickly smart-arse who does whatever he needs to do to hide his sexuality behind a wall of don’t-give-a-shit toughness, but inside, he’s broken, ashamed of his home and his parents – his dad knocks him around and beats his mum – his aspirations to go to university and make himself a better life blocked by his drunkard arsehole of a dad who backhands him and tells him no way is he poncing around at fucking university and he’s getting a job and putting in a manual shift like every other Leeson bloke before him.
Even as a teen, Alex is a bit straight-laced, but he’s really kind, with a wry sense of humour, and his confusion over what it means that he wants to kiss Matt even though he like girls is really well expressed. (This is a time when, although homosexuality is no longer illegal, prejudice is rife and Section 28 is still in force, which would have made it incredibly difficult for kids questioning their sexuality to find help and information.) They’re very different, but they balance each other; Alex’s steadiness grounds Matt, and Matt’s exuberance helps Alex loosen up a bit.
The rekindling of their youthful romance comes with a lot of baggage that needs to be dealt with, but the author builds their relationship and portrays the emotions between them so incredibly well in the first half of the book, that it’s easy to believe they’ve never really stopped loving each other, despite everything that’s happened to them over the intervening twenty-five years. If I have a complaint it’s that the ending is perhaps a little rushed, but that’s probably only because I didn’t want to leave Matt and Alex so soon; they’ve still got hurdles to get over, but the book leaves them in a good place, on a poignant, yet hopeful note that love really will help them find a way.
Two Tribes is compelling and beautiful, full of warmth, humour and genuine, heartfelt emotion that is never overdone. The secondary cast is terrific – Matt’s two best friends are incredibly well-written – a pair of loveable dickheads whose hearts are in the right place – and the friendship between them is perfectly judged. Alex’s son, Ryan, is likeable and well-rounded – a realistic teenager and not at all a plot moppet – and their father/son relationship is totally believable. There are some darker themes in the story (depression, suicidal ideation, self-harm) but they’re handled in a sensitive manner and are neverused gratuitously.
It’s a wonderful book – you’ll laugh, you’ll sniffle and you’ll feel as though your heart will break – but Matt and Alex’s eventual HEA is all the sweeter for the tough road travelled to get there. Highly recommended.