Book review: Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas

(cover image courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia)

There is a profound beauty and sense of completion that comes into being when someone is finally able to be authentically who they are.

No more hiding, no more deception, to themselves or others, a giddy sense of self acceptance that becomes all the more potent when others also accept the person in front of them without condition or judgement.

How powerful this acceptance can be, and how miserable its absence, becomes potently clear in Cemetery Boys, the debut novel by Aiden Thomas, a queer, transgender (trans) latinx author who makes a moving case for why it is important that friends and family of people wholly and unequivocally embrace the gender of someone close to them.

But he does it in a way that makes what can be a fraught discussion with people who don’t fully understand what it means when someone comes out as the opposite gender assigned to them at birth a far easier and more accessible proposition, but no less poignant or emotionally resonant for this accessibility.

The protagonist of Cemetery Boys is Yadriel, a fifteen-year-old latinx trans man who is struggling to find his place in the brujx community of East L.A, a longstanding group of families who for over a millennia have been gifted by the Santa Muerte, the Lady of Death, with helping people transition form life to death.

Like any longstanding community, there is a considerable weight of tradition and responsibility that comes with membership, and for the most part Yadriel is happy to be a part of the rituals that make his life a mostly happy one.

“Being transgender and gay had earned Yadriel the title of Head Black Sheep among the brujx. Though, in truth, being gay had actually been much easier for them to accept, but only because they saw Yadriel’s liking boys as still being heterosexual.” (P. 13)

But one big issue remains for him, and in the context of the brujx community, it is massive – that he be allowed to assume a role as a brujo, the role assigned only to men usually, a position that entails helping souls find their way to the afterlife, or if lost, to be guided away from limbo here on earth where there is always the risk they will turn maligno, or evil, stripped of everything that made them who they were in life.

It is a heavy responsibility to assume, but Yadriel is ready for it; the only problem is that his father, Enrique, who heads the community, says women cannot become brujo.

As a trans man, who is supported by his cousin Maritza, his uncle Cadriz and a number of other family members, including his late mother who will see on Día de Muertos or the Day of the Dead, when all the brujx who have died come back to the cemetery where Yadriel lives to spend two days with their families, this is gutting for the wannabe brujo is ways too numerous to count.

He knows he doesn’t have the traditional healing skills assigned to the women or bruja, and longs to fulfill his true gender destiny as a guide of spirits to their everlasting life.

Aiden Thomas (image courtesy official Twitter account)

Taking matters into his own hands, he performs the quinces ritual with Maritza along for the supportive ride, an act which sees him confirmed in the role of brujo, proof that what his father can’t accept is very much who he is.

Lady Death wouldn’t have gifted him with the brujo gifts unless he was, as he knows in his soul, a man.

Now how to convince his father of his reality?

Any musing on how to go about this is pretty taken from Yadriel’s hands when he sets out to find the ghost of his murdered cousin Miguel and ends up summoning the spirit of local bad boy Julian Diaz instead.

Julian is not someone who’s going to take death lying down, and he makes a deal with Yadriel that he will allow himself to be ushered into the afterlife if Yadriel will help him find out how he died.

Sounds simple? Not so much, with Cemetery Boys making it clear that nothing is straightforward when it comes to life and death, and yes, matters of the heart because Yadriel, a gay trans man falls hard for Julian, an unexpected occurrence which makes saying goodbye to him on the night of Halloween, which ushers in Día de Muertos, all but impossible.

“He was kind of an asshole. Julian was abrasive, sometimes rude, and didn’t seem to have much tact. But, for some reason, Yadriel’s heart still fluttered in his chest.

He blinked at Julian, not knowing what to say. It seemed way too easy, way too idyllic. Things didn’t just work out like that in the real world.

It wasn’t enough to have summoned Julian, to have been bound to his portaje, or for Lady Death’s blessing to flow through him with its golden light. He needed to do everything the men could do before asking the brujx to accept him into the community. He couldn’t leave any gaps for them to question.” (P. 185)

There is so much to appreciate, and love, about Cemetery Boys which powerfully and intimately explores what it means to be transgender, especially in the latinx community, how people mean well and love deeply but can still be fouled up by longheld cultural mores, and how wonderful being wholly and completely yourself and being unquestionably loved for it, both by friends & family, and romantically can be.

This novel is a delight, not least because it gives those of us with no knowledge of latinx culture, a love letter introduction to a vibrant and wonderful world rich in family, food, rituals and a beautifully inclusive sense of belonging.

Even more so, though, if you are a member of the latinx community, Cemetery Boys gives you a chance to see yourself and your hopes and dreams and concerns on paper, your story told with wisdom, nuance and empathy by someone who has lived the very things about which they write.

Impressively, this all takes place in the context of brilliantly emotive, deeply romantic, funny (the banter between Yadriel and Martitza alone is worth the price of admission) and action packed story which is never less than absolutely, immersively engaging.

There is an exuberant vibrancy to Cemetery Boys which carries a powerfully inspirational message in such a way that it is not at all preachy, with Thomas’s pitch-perfect writing conveying why unconditional acceptance and inclusion matters so much without once feeling too heavy or burdensome.

It does not stint on how Yadriel copes with the many ups and downs of his journey into authentically living out his true gender, how desperately he longs to be accepted, how uplifting it is to fall in love in the most extraordinary of circumstances, and how transformational it is to be wholly accepted as his true self.

Cemetery Boys is a brilliantly evocative book that takes you into the worlds of the living and the dead while making a moving case for maintaining tradition and the rituals and bonds of community while at the same time always remembering that life is never static or unyielding and that simply because we haven’t experienced something ourselves, doesn’t mean it isn’t true or valid., and that every person should be embraced and love for who they authentically are without question, with everyone richer and more blessed for such openness.

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