The Story of Us, Barbara Elsborg
Rating: 5 Stars
Publisher: Self Published
Genre: Gay New Adult
Tags: New Adult, Coming -of- Age, *Potential Trigger – On Page Childhood Physical and Emotional Abuse, Anxiety, Depression. Romance/Love Story, Second Chances
Length: 358 Pages
Reviewer: Kazza K
Purchase At: amazon.com
Two boys. One love. Ten summers.
Are you okay?
The first words Zed says to Caspian, and the first time someone has cared about the answer. On a hot summer’s day, the lives of two boys are changed forever. A rebel and a risk taker, Caspian doesn’t give a damn for the consequences. Studious and obedient, Zed is the good boy who is never good enough.
The two couldn’t be more different, but there’s one thing they share, a need to belong to someone who understands them, someone who cares. Their friendship goes deeper than either can possibly imagine. They’re young, in love, and planning their future when an act of betrayal tears them apart.
Fate has dealt its hand. Seasons pass. Zed’s words follow Caspian through pain, fear and into the darkest of places. Friendships last a lifetime, even when the world conspires to crush them. But this is more than friendship. This is love and they’re not going to let it slip through their fingers.
The Story of Us is a tale of love and survival, and the triumph of good over evil against the odds.
The Story of Us is a new adult contemporary romance. It deals with family and social issues, violence and cruelty to children but not sexual assault, sexual situations, and has dark elements and suspense. The events and locations are a mixture of real and fictional. The characters are fictional.
I usually bypass New Adult books, I feel like I’m well past that stage of my life and that they suit younger people more than me, but this year has reminded me that that’s not true. If a book is good, then it’s simply good. I’ve read two different but excellent NA books over the past 4 months, and as I’m typing this review I’m currently considering a third. The Story of Us is for anyone who enjoys quality writing.
Hvarechaeshman Zadeh, or Zed, is fourteen at the beginning of this story. He lives in a village in Kent, England. He’s Muslim, and lives with his father and his older brother – his mother died three years before and he misses her. He’s quiet, gentle, loves music and would like to pursue it but his father wants him to be an accountant. Accountancy is not negotiable. Zed’s family is upper white collar, his father owns a pharmacy. Theoretically, Zed’s life shouldn’t be particularly difficult. However, his father bullies and beats his son regularly. His grades could be better, he could be more help around the house, he could study more, much harder, help at the pharmacy even more, be more like his older brother, be a better son. Everything Zed likes or loves, especially music, is haram in his father’s eyes, even though his father drinks whisky instead of praying, and watches porn – definitely haram. The goalposts always shift in the name of his father’s hypocrisy and religious cherry-picking cruelty. Zed’s older brother, Tamaz, is the favoured son and he’s in the process of leaving to go to university in Canterbury. Tamaz knows their father is physically abusive to Zed but he doesn’t intervene or say much about it, other than Zed should just try to be a good son. Which he is. When Zed is overwhelmed he likes to visit the neighbouring property, a large estate with plenty of places to hide and think of pleasant things, to think about running away.
Fifteen year old Caspian Ulysses Octavian Nathaniel Tarleton is the product of a titled and wealthy family in the same village. Caspian notices the boy who slips onto his family’s property and can’t help but wonder who he is and what he’s doing there. It just happens one evening that the boy is hanging out right near Caspian’s treehouse, the one he “inherited” from his mean-spirited older brother for a while, one that will probably be taken over by his younger sisters soon enough.
Caspian loves poetry and inventing things, but that doesn’t suit his family. He also has quite severe dyslexia and struggles at school because of it. No teacher advocates for him, his family ridicule him for it, and he rebels at every school he attends, ending up expelled on numerous occasions. His mother is too busy with social events, being seen to be caring, instead of actually caring. His father is caught up in the family name with no time for a dyslexic, troubled son. Caspian needs to snap out of it and get on with being a proper Tarleton.
From the outset, these boys have things in common – dysfunctional families, a similar sense of humour, being outsiders in their overall life, a growing friendship, bravery, and, soon enough, a deepening affection. And, while they are younger, they continue to steal moments on Caspian’s family’s estate. There are some lovely moments spent talking about flamingos and, of all things, terminal velocity. Caspian often hopes, thinks, in the earlier stages, as they’re getting to know one another, ‘please be gay’ about Zed. Caspian knows he’s gay and he’s not ashamed of it. Zed becomes aware of his sexual orientation but is guarded because he is Muslim and has a powder keg of a father.
They settled on their stomachs and Caspian switched on his music player. The first song was by Robbie Williams. Something Beautiful from Escapology. How apt was that? Zed was beautiful. This place was their escape.
Where Zed is a quieter, more shy boy, not prone to rebel, Caspian is daring and confident. There are wonderfully compensatory aspects as well as familiarity to their relationship from the outset. Zed loves the way Caspian can make fun out of pretty much anything. Caspian admires Zed’s courage and gentleness in the face of a physically abusive father. From the first summer they meet they form a steel bond that is forged in adversity and their unwavering support of one another. Their need for the other. Caspian notices the bruises on Zed’s body and makes it known he is there for support, as needed, without pushing. Zed knows Caspian has his own struggles and he encourages his inventions. Him.
Zed wants to leave and go to London but he knows it isn’t possible until he’s sixteen, he’ll only be taken home for more abuse before then. As time rolls on toward Zed turning sixteen, Caspian is more than ever certain that he’ll be leaving with Zed for London. After one especially nasty beating, eventually ending in hospitalisation, the police are called but Zed denies anything is to do with his father, such is the fear of further reprisals. He’ll bide his time until it’s right for both he and Caspian to leave together without the consequences of being dragged back home.
Even if he was put into care, not an alternative that appealed, he’d always be scared his father would find a way to destroy him. So when he went, he had to go for good, make sure he disappeared completely.
As the boys get a little older and physically closer, Caspian’s obsequious older brother spies Zed and Caspian clearly being closer than ‘friends’ in the treehouse and tells their father. Caspian is forbidden from seeing Zed anymore. This is on top of an incident involving both boys and a local field. Caspian’s father uses it as a point of emotional blackmail and, besides, no Tarleton will have notions of high spirits or homosexuality. Not too long after, Caspian is sent to a boarding school in Scotland – Blackstones. Blackstones is a very tough school, one to make men out of boys, which boasts no such thing as expulsion, just tougher discipline. Or course, Zed is not immune to punishment for his and Caspian’s teenage exuberance. During their time apart Zed sends notes, keeping their connection alive, making plans to meet up when Caspian is back home. However, Caspian’s family have other ideas, like trips abroad and keeping him away from Kent in general, but the boys find ways and times to catch up and reconnect.
From here I can’t talk much about specifics of the book because there’s too much to cover, mostly it will spoil the story and reading experience. What I can add is that there’s a world of difficulty and swift growing up for the two MCs over the period of the book, the ten summers. There is a major betrayal that has a devastating ripple effect. Already there is much that makes your heart leap into your throat for the boys, but life events and seeming expendability conspire against them, and the reader’s heart gets a workout. You cannot help but feel a great deal of emotion around these MCs. It’s difficult reading about physically and emotionally abusive parents. You just want to protect the boys. Then there are changes in fortunes and circumstances surrounding the two. The utter dedication the two of them share, even if one tries to dissuade the other for fear of not being enough, also gives the novel uplifting times. Overall the book puts the reader through an absolute emotional wringer. I put it down a couple of times and breathed for a moment or two then continued.
Over the years of formative youth, hurtful lessons are delivered alongside dedication, humour, deep and abiding affection, love and loyalty – so much love and loyalty – for one another. Somehow, and it works well, the boys manage to connect and reconnect over the course of the book, and they never let go. How steadfast their love remains, no matter the pain, distance, and difficulty, keeps you turning those pages, wishing and hoping for the very best.
Caspian was desperate to touch him, prove to his sceptical brain that Zed was real. Only feet away and it felt like miles. But unless Caspian touched him, he couldn’t know for sure.
There are people, adults in the chronological sense of the word, in this book I truly cannot stand. There is an attempted redemption, let’s just say I was ambivalent about it. Then there are Henry and Jonas, even Jackson, who are amazing and offer help and support and kindness that I wish so many other people could offer.
The book is told in alternating POV so you know what both boys are experiencing. It packs so much more depth and punch this way. When they have time spent apart the dual POV helps the reader know what’s happening and what’s being thought and felt.
The story takes in a period from 2010 and mixes in fictional with real events in England – the 2012 London Summer Olympics and the 2017 Ariana Grande Manchester concert bombing among them. Barbara Elsborg delivers a strong sense of contemporary time and place throughout the book.
The voices of the boys felt real, different from one another, and age appropriate. Even as they aged their voices aged accordingly.
This is a soul-stirring coming-of-age novel. Complete with innocent first love that deepens into so much more, and familial pain and betrayal. It’s the life over ten summers for two boys who become young men. It’s about finding a kindred spirit, someone who gives you hope in dark times, someone who cares for and eventually loves you for who you are, warts and all. That emotional bond that so many spend a lifetime searching for, these boys find, understand, and know is vital to hold on to. Life can throw you curveballs, some are life-altering, just ask Zed and Caspian. But there’s also humour, kindness, gentleness, moments of simple joy, caring, total despair, utter determination, and, once again, love, so much wonderous and heartfelt love.
The blurb does a good job of breaking down the story at the foundation of this book, but it cannot truly convey the magnitude of the tale, the emotion and connection at its core. I can’t recommend the beautifully named The Story of Us highly enough. If you are like me and feel unsure of NA, and my review piques your interest in any way, I say dive in and take a chance, immerse yourself in a poignant piece of writing with two wonderful MCs that I doubt you’ll ever forget. 5 Stars!