Boxer Handsome by Anna Whitwham
This debut by Anna Whitwham is just begging for a few puns – and, never wishing to disappoint, let’s start by saying that this here is a literary opponent who has promise in the ring, but limps out both conscious and defeated. As protagonist Bobby says, he’s never been knocked out, ensuring that the reader is now guaranteed to be waiting on tenterhooks throughout Boxing Handsome for just that to happen. Spoiler: it does.
This is a tale based around anger, sex, and family dysfunction; sounds like a typical teenage angst novel until you throw in the theme of boxing, which takes it into a slightly different ballpark. Bobby, a mixed Irish and Jewish Londoner, falls into a fight with Connor over Theresa – Connor’s reluctant girlfriend of sorts – and all threads of his life begin to unravel as he tries to both metaphorically and literally box his way out of them. With a crucial fight (official, this one) in a week’s time, Bobby seems set to self destruct, and the dysfunction evident in his peers and family alike leave no room for doubt as to why.
Family and loyalty are two themes covered powerfully in this impressive debut. Whitwham’s grandfather was a featherweight boxer and as such she clearly understands the passion and life around the sport as much as she does the fiddly details. Her dialogue is spot on and the clipped sentences and occasional London dialect used gives a memorable voice to the already enduringly complex characters.
Boxer Handsome cuts no corners and is indelicate in many ways, but is one of those books that really gives voice to the furious, restrained beauty inherent in rigid masculinity. Anger and hate are so closely mixed with love and vulnerability in the scene in which Bobby begs Chloe, a ‘nice’ girl a world away from the life he occupies, to have sex with him as he lies beaten and emasculated after a group attack. The shocking scene near the close of the novel where his life as a boxer and his life as Bobby collide show more than anything the brittleness of life in the ring, as his star-turned depressive drunk father Joe shows poignantly. It’s a relief to be left on a note of hope on the final couple of pages – for a debut, Whitwham certainly packs a punch and a knockout round two seems likely.
Boxer Handsome is published by Chatto at the hardback price of £12.99, and is available in the UK now. For further information visit here.