Paul Burston’s first four novels were almost always referred to as ‘gay fiction’, and to be fair they were full of detailed descriptions of LGBT lives mixed with elements of pop culture including some larger than life characters – and were all extremely enjoyable.
In 2016 after a gap of a few years, Paul’s writing literally took a darker route with his excellent thriller The Black Path and now that journey away from what is expected from a ‘gay author’ continues with the intriguing The Closer I Get.
Paul has always drawn on his own life experiences in his writing, with characters or settings, and in this, his sixth novel even more so. The Closer I Get begins as a fairly straightforward story of a gay author, Tom pursued and then harassed by a female fan, Evie Stokes and the support he gets from his friend Emma. Paul suffered his own round of online abuse a few years ago and he has channelled this into the book, giving it a convincing attention to detail. Through most of the book we follow Tom and Emma as they deal with the fall out from the trial of Evie and we follow her through her own words in a series of letters she writes to Tom, letters she never sends.
At the start of the book the roles of the characters are fairly clear, good guy, bad girl and supportive friend, but as the story unfolds and as we get closer to them we discover that everything is more grey than black and white. Paul leads us to uncover what kind of life Evie had as a child, and just when there’s glimmer of sympathy for her he literally shoves that out of the way. Tom is revealed to be as flawed as anyone, a victim of his own weaknesses as much as the abuse from Evie. This is a clever and intelligent thriller, that is not all about big shocking twists, although there are a couple of great ones, this is more subtle, it’s more like a gradual evolution. You suddenly realise that this a story about the layers we all have within us. It’s also a personal story, Paul has set part of the book in Hastings, a town he knows well and Tom’s decision to write a book based on his experiences mirrors his own motivations, giving it another subtle twist. The Closer I Get is something different, a modern tale about the pitfalls of celebrity and social media and if I was Netflix or the BBC I’d be reaching for my cheque book. Dave Cross