For gay people like me, it’s disheartening growing up without seeing examples of long term same-sex love reflected in the books we read and the films we watch – never mind seeing it actually realized in the world around us. I was raised in rural Maine where there were few gay people. It was extremely difficult to come out of the closet although I consider myself lucky to have known supportive people and I had a much easier time than many. If I'd been born ten years earlier it would have been much more difficult. During my teenage years in the mid-90s I became sexually aware and eagerly looked for stories about various kinds of queer experience. However, the majority of examples I saw on television/films or read about in novels were comically-presented/hopelessly-single camp men or “deviants” who endlessly cruised without settling down, died from AIDS related illnesses and could not experience any real romance that didn’t end in bleak tragedy. These stories needed to be told (as long as they were told sensitively). But how could I envision a love life for myself based only on examples of broken romance? Matthew Griffin's beautiful debut novel “Hide” tells a story that I hungered for as a teen: a layered and nuanced lifelong romance between two men. But this is more than simply a gay romance; it's a novel about how love transforms over large stretches of time and the different roles partners play during difficult periods of life.
Frank and Wendell meet after WWII in North Carolina. Frank served in the war and Wendell works as a taxidermist. Amidst their burgeoning romance within a small community, they are aware of the dangerous consequences if they were to be open about their feelings for each other. Instead of risking familial rejection, public condemnation, possible imprisonment and/or psychiatric institutionalization they choose to retreat to an extremely isolated house in the country and never allow anyone to know that they are together. When they must be seen together they pretend to be brothers. An incident like the occurs at the novel's beginning when Frank who is in his eighties collapses in their garden from heart trouble. Told from Wendell's perspective, we see over the course of the novel the heart-wrenching struggle as Frank continues to deteriorate both mentally and physically. Interspersed with the increasing strain of their daily lives are accounts of their relationship over the decades and the sacrifices they've made isolating themselves from the rest of society.
Amidst descriptions about Wendell's profession stuffing animals there are some strikingly memorable images of the body's physical reality and the emotional resonance of dealing with it. This leads to some arresting statements about the surface of things: “It's the skin and the skin alone that makes any of us worthy of love or kindness. Underneath it we are monsters, every living thing.” There is something profoundly beautiful and sombre about revelations made from working with the body and what this means for identity in the case of Frank's condition. Griffin is bracingly honest about the stress caused from the slow physical/mental breakdown of ageing and the antagonism it creates. It's so skilful how he shows the power of their relationship not only through moments of moving tenderness but in the intimate forms of cruelty which can only be enacted by a couple who really love each other.
The extreme discretion of their relationship requires them to say very little about themselves to anyone outside of their carefully guarded circumscribed domestic life. They find that “The best lies, we’d learned, don’t ask you to say a word. They practically tell themselves.” This anonymity prevents them from fully engaging with their communities but also cuts them off from their families. At one point during their many years together Frank's aunt attempts to make contact with him as he is her favourite nephew, but Frank staunchly deflects any chance for a meaningful connection even when it seems she might be sympathetic to the truth of their situation. He decides the risk is too great.
Their reclusive life not only requires losing out on family life but also any lasting record of their love. At one point Wendell realizes “when we’re gone, nobody will remember any of it. Nobody will see our photos and marvel that we, too, were young once; nobody will wonder about the things we never told them. It will be as if none of it ever happened.” It's a grave tragedy that their love story can't be a part of the narrative of their families or society. It's lost to succeeding generations. Many gay boys like me would have felt less alone growing up knowing that someone from a previous generation in my family had been in a same-sex relationship. A simple photograph of two men from the past with their arms romantically around each other would have been a profound revelation.
It's a worthy task of novelists today to reclaim the love experienced by previous generations of gay people through imaginative stories. It inserts back into our culture what must have happened but what we can never know about because it could only exist in silence. A series of authors have differently approached this in their recent writing from Patrick Gale's “A Place Called Winter” to Sjon's “Moonstone”. Matthew Griffin's extremely moving book is a wonderful addition to this burgeoning canon of literature. “Hide” is an elegantly written and powerful novel. It's important that succeeding generations of gay people have more stories like this.