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Mutilation is not an easy fictional theme, especially when a story opens with the castration of a six-year-old. This brutal, gory start is referenced repeatedly in Virginia-based author Colin Sargent’s new novel, The Boston Castrato, and it is not the only mutilation explored; foot binding is referred to, as are the podiatric agonies of ballet dancers. “It was every dancer’s secret shame. Each of her toes was bunged and purple with blood and coagulant, pus oozing from her split and ingrown nails.”
The idea, clearly, is the physical suffering endured for art; but the novel extends it to include the social and emotional contortions associated with music, dance, and poetry. With this theme, the novel sometimes succeeds and sometimes does not. When it does not, though, it is usually because a graphic description is deployed when a simple, realistic one would work much better. And realism does not require that every gaudily gruesome detail be exposed, merely that a social world that could exist, that may exist, be evoked.
The best sections of The Boston Castrato recount with easy realism the hero’s work in a hotel, another character at work in a shipyard, and other such seemingly mundane activities. The novel vividly renders the hotel—the Parker House—from the subterranean dish-washing stations to the gleaming wood of the bar, to the perfectly appointed dining room, to the owner’s office, and more. Indeed, the Parker House is more than mere setting, it is practically another full-fledged character, largely due to its pellucid rendering as a social milieu.
Then there are the literati and other luminaries. Since the book is a period piece, set in 1920s Boston, that era’s famous people—the art patroness Isabella Gardener, John Singer Sargent, and, from Vienna, Anna Freud—make appearances, while numerous others are mentioned: Sacco and Vanzetti, Henry James, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Bernard Berenson, and D.H. Lawrence. There are also allusions to the Russian revolution and the vogue of imagist poetry, which give the novel pizzazz, while the plot and subplots provide substance. But at the center of The Boston Castrato is the hero Raffi’s mutilation, which throws a terrible obstacle in the narrative’s path, namely the reader’s pity for him.
At one point Raffi gazes into the eyes of a circus freak: “Dare you come into my loneliness?” is what he sees. This has nothing in common with some happy, 21st century tale of transgender redemption through surgery. Raffi was swindled out of his manhood and repeated mention of the bloody act impedes appreciation of who he becomes.
The Boston Castrato’s real strengths lie not in evoking a bygone era or the physical torments endured for art, but in its characterization and how it weaves together subplots. Raffi’s friend and boss at the hotel, a blind African American named Victor, is in many ways the book’s central concern. A subplot involving an Italian immigrant family and a communist Harvard student who travelled to Soviet Russia somehow holds your attention better than the details of cross-dressing and catty infighting in the upper crust, blue-blood, gay precincts of ragtime Boston.
There are also strong portrayals of crooked pols, hit men, imposters, gangsters, aspiring singers, and psychics—pictures that advance the plot and subplots—which don’t really pick up steam until halfway through the book. But when they do, they barrel on to their dramatic conclusions, finally pulling the reader past that crippling pity for Raffi to an appreciation of this novel’s achievements.