Book review: Fin & Rye & Fireflies by Harry Cook

(cover image courtesy Black & White Publishing)

It will hardly come as a surprise to anyone that we live in an infamously intolerant world (except of course to the intolerant themselves who simply see themselves as upholding all manner of decency, truth etc etc).

If you are an outlier of any kind to the scarily homogenous cisgender white world that seems to prevail despite the glorious diversity that is increasingly, and welcomingly apparent all around us, you will be sadly well-acquainted with the ability of those entrenched in mainstream orthodoxy where usually societal power unfairly dwells to quash any divergence from accepted norms (again, accepted by the powers-that-be, not those oppressed by them).

Fin Whittle, the protagonist of Harry Cook’s wonderfully weighty gay rom-com Fin & Rye & Fireflies – the title alone feels like a reassuring hug on a cold, rainy day – knows all too well what it is like to live in a world which routinely tells him he is not okay or acceptable.

At the start of the novel, that is the town of Pittford, an archly conservative town which holds an annual “real” Christmas parade where Santa is persona non grata and anything or anyone LGBTQ is seen as an abhorrent abnormality only worthy of condemnation and judgemental gossip, and where Fin’s avowedly religious parents feel comfortably at home.

As does Fin, as much as a gay sixteen-year-old can in a town that seems him as a grievous oddity can, until he is outed in the cruellest of ways, forcing his parents to flee the embarrassment of not having a “normal” son by moving to the nearby town of Lochport.

“My heart skitters and I feel like a thousand butterflies are dancing in my tummy. Love, Rye and Poppy. Which one wrote it? Rye’s name is first, so him? Now I can’t stop thinking of that ridiculously cute smile and his curly hair. And then the fact that he has a human excuse for a toilet as a boyfriend slaps me across the face.” (P. 45)

At first, Fin is horrified and sad beyond belief.

His world upended, the last place he wants to be is somewhere new, living in a household where his parents seem to hate him, despite his protestations that they love him (not exactly unconditionally as it turns out), and he’s away from his bestie Emily with his globally adventurous and supportive brother Elliott too far away to be of any material good.

Then he meets the hilariously but meaningfully out there pansexual Poppy, with more chutzpah than anyone he’s ever met before, her on-again, off-again girlfriend, June, a trans woman who passionately heads the local Queer-Straight Alliance (QSA), and most importantly, the handsomely sweet Rye who captures Fin’s attention in a way he never thought it would be possible for anyone to do.

Alas, Rye, who, like Poppy and June, have incredibly supportive, loving parents who stand in stark contrast to Fin’s own staunchly conservative nightmares, has a boyfriend, a beefy, rich kid named Eric who ticks a whole lot of boxes, on the surface at least, when it comes to dream boyfriend.

So maybe Lochport, which is a thousand times more liberal than Pittford, with its school wholly in favour of trans rights in a way that would likely cause the people of Fin’s old hometown to keel over in abject horror, isn’t so bad, after all.

Harry Cook (image courtesy Books+ Publishing Australia)

His parents aside, Fin finally feels at home and safe in his skin in a way he never did before, and though his parents keep looking for any sign that the move hasn’t transformed their son into their idealised image of masculine hetero perfection – at one point, so blinkered is Fin’s dad, that he thinks Poppy is Fin’s girlfriend; this cracks Poppy up no end but is a telling sign of the parent’s delusional outlook – he finds himself increasingly owning his sexuality and falling for Fin, a fruitless trajectory with no real chance of find a fulfilling place to land.

Or is it?

Well, Fin & Rye & Fireflies is a rom-com so the odds are good that Fin and Rye may find themselves in each other’s arms before the story ends, but in the meantime, there’s a lot of cuteness and angst to lose yourself in with Cook demonstrating a real gift for vibrantly alive characters, sparklingly rich and funny dialogue and for creating a sense of place which feels both welcoming and threatening all at once.

While many queer YA rom-coms pointedly canvas the way thoughtless bigotry and discrimination affects their characters’ lives, Fin & Rye & Fireflies really goes all in, taking a savage and well-argued swipe at the way in which homophobia manifests, from rallies against trans people using the bathroom that matches their gender to the hateful practice of “conversion therapy” which treats LGBTQ as something broken to be fixed.

It gleefully but thoughtfully emphasises how damaging the latter activity in particular is, and how far from healing people with love, it breaks them up with hate, leaving many suicidal and alone and far from gloriously made whole (they were, of course, never broken to begin with).

“I haven’t had this before. This awesome feeling of belonging and acceptance where it feels okay to hold my boyfriend’s hand in public. Or to have a boyfriend, period. To sit and feel comfortable around friends without fear of being judged for who I am. Or of them being judged for who they are. It’s awesome.” (P. 248)

Cook seamlessly and with dramatically affecting potency weaves these avowedly political messages into a sweet tale of coming of age queer love which adds real substance to the light and frothy delights of rom-com love.

Fin & Rye & Fireflies is one of those rare books which manages to confront both the ugliness of the world as it is while imagining a place where people are routinely accepted and unconditionally loved for who they are, and emerges wearing its heart on its sleeve and its mind wonderfully and fruitfully engaged.

This is the gay wish fantasy that feels real and possible, from the supportiveness of the QSA group to the close knit found family of Poppy, June, Rye and Fin and their parents and siblings through to the strikeback against “conversion therapy” which is being outlawed around the world as its corrosive effects become widely promoted and rightly condemned.

While it very much has a socially conscious substantive thread running through it, which names it enemy and how to defeat it in ways informed and passionately true, Fin & Rye & Fireflies is at heart, a richly expansive, intimately heartwarming and endless affirming lovesong to young queer romance and being faithfully, authentically yourself, cute as hell and weighty as you want, which lifts the heart, engages the mind and enriches the soul all while being so charmingly cute it will sweep you up in its arms and never let you go until the final gorgeously romantic last page.

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