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Sarah Burgess

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Page 45 Review by Stephen

"I'm not as shallow as I had hoped."

Oh, that would make life so much easier, wouldn't it? To let knock-backs roll off your slippery, polished surface; to not care about others' feelings as much as your own; to be happy-go-lucky, remaining unfazed under all circumstances.

It would certainly soothe Sarah's stress in social situations, and relieve her bewilderment when it comes to all the awkward intricacies of friendship levels within love, sex and romance.

What Burgess wants above all is to learn about herself, so she started to think aloud on paper by drawing diary comics, observing her thoughts and reactions in some considerable depth and with astonishing clarity, even when it comes to confusion.

But the best thing about this entire enterprise is that in bravely publishing them first online and now in this joyously colourful, printed pamphlet - at the risk of exacerbating her already considerable vulnerability - Burgess achieves her other heart's desire of helping others who might recognise themselves, to some degree or other, in what they read here and so find sympathy, solace and, better still, succour. That's why you'll find this in Page 45's online Mental Health section.

What Burgess learns eventually, snuggling under a floral duvet with a sleepy friend is:

"I want to be quiet, with someone."

It's a tranquil page in purple and early-morning sunshine gold, with the potential for well earned contentment and hope.

It is, however, but a brief respite, for the series titled 'The Truth Is..." returns with 'The Truth Is... I Worry. (A lot.)' And she does.

Particularly anxious in social situations, so often the conflicting, debilitating and often escalating voices raging in her head allow Burgess little peace and virtually no quiet except in those rare moments when she manages to quash her insecurities, self-doubts and second-guessing of others' opinions with a little level-headed observation and logic... before another stray thought once more blows her precarious house of cards down.

Burgess is especially adept at these circular mental maps. I've seen so many more, each of which deserves publication for they have all made perfect, powerful sense to me.

Quite often her layouts have this same organic, wavy, serpentine or circular flow with a lot of free-floating. Most of the short stories come in two contrasting or complementary colours, 'The Jungle' being beautiful in purple and green. The fronds are thick as Sarah seeks to navigate this jungle of dating, pushing through the dense undergrowth, attempting to identify what she and others want by slapping on labels, before being ambushed by an unexpectedly blunt and alarmingly hungry offer which changes her own hand-held signs from "Casual" and "Open-Minded" to "Meat".

"For whatever reason, I decided the best way to get through this jungle was just being honest."

More signs spring up, as during the opening to 'The Herb Garden': "Open", "Awkward", "Scared", "Selfish", "Love".

"Mostly I felt like that just give me more trouble" in the form of question marks all round, "Then I meet a friend."

Delightfully at this point, the jungle of delicately delineated, veined leaves moves inside the couple as they dance round each other leaving their surroundings full of space, sparkling with light. Inevitably Sarah soon starts to over-think things, desperate for clarification, and the jungle creeps outside again, threatening to smother them, but oh what a punchline of promise!

What I'm attempting to convey here is the fierce thought that Burgess - creator of THE SUMMER OF BLAKE SINCLAIR and BROTHER'S STORY - throws into how she can most imaginatively and accurately represent her complex predicaments and evoke the thoughts, feelings and sensations they induce in her; and that progress so often isn't straight forward and free from struggle with a linear trajectory ever-upwards. It ebbs and flows with waves of uncertainty and self-reassurance.

Reading others and reading their signs - the signals they're putting out - is never easy, especially when it comes to the often blurred boundaries between friendship, romance and sex. Are they flirting with you or merely being polite? Do they want to frolic once more or will you ruin that friendship by hugging too intimately and suggesting that you do? Essentially, does somebody want what you want too?

In this instance, perhaps, telepathy might for once be a boon. Or it could lead to even more self-consciousness.

There are much lighter notes, like the disappointment in discovering that a new crush is already taken - and it was going so well!

Self-perception is a big problem here, trust and intimacy, plus the masochism of over-thinking things very much like Sarah Andersen does in BIG MUSHY HAPPY LUMP. Oh yes, and then there's rejection and validation, even more of an issue in this age of social media.

"People keep saying, keep saying, Validate yourself, Validate yourself."

Burgess pushes her head deep inside her chest.

"Oh my god!! There's just a big hole in here, what if I just need constant validation???"

We're only human! Jeez, if you only knew the deflation and worry whenever I hit 'publish' on these weekly reviews and Twitter is nothing but tumbleweed!

Speaking of human (and indeed self-perception), everyone here is depicted as human except Sarah. Her self-portrait is as a Morph-like, alien creature with twin horns or animal ears: the outsider.

As to dependency and independence, BOYS CLUB begins with 'The Road That We Could Take', created shortly after "coming out of a big relationship".

The first six pages in deep red and pine green are entirely silent. Miserable, sat lost and alone, wounded by the side a rural track, a young woman is helped to her feet by a handsome lad with a smile on his face. Together they begin to explore a mountain range of stunning vistas. He heaves her up steeper slopes or carries her on piggy-back. Gradually the wound heals, then in a moment of shared self-awareness they both realise, joyfully then bashfully, the love that they hold in their hearts for each other. They travel on, hand in hand, following unmarked signs to enjoy stunning views down below.

Then comes a direction which the woman wants to take and she eagerly rushes forward, but he holds her back, quite forcibly, before hugging her close. She looks sadly back over her shoulder and the route untraveled, denied her. She tries once again to suggest they take that road, but he is adamant.

I wonder if you know where that is going.

"I don't know what's right for me anymore."

And so Sarah's journey begins.

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