Book Review: Ostrich Boys by Keith Gray

ostrich boysOstrich Boys by Keith Gray
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“Ross was hit by a car, knocked off his bike. At the funeral the vicar had called it an accident. But somehow the word wasn’t enough. It wasn’t big enough, powerful enough–didn’t mean enough. He hadn’t spilled a cup of tea, he hadn’t tripped over his own feet. He’d had his life smashed out of him. It felt like there should be a whole new word invented just to describe it.”

Upset over the loss of their best friend, Ross, and displeased by his funeral, Blake, Sim, and Kenny all agree: their dead mate deserves a proper ceremony. The funeral “felt like genuine betrayal,” says Blake, because Ross means more to them than hoaxed compassion expressed by people who didn’t care about him–not like Blake, Sim, or Kenny did, anyway. Ross was their friend and worthy of something authentic. Born out of grief, hurt, and eagerness to do one last thing for their friend, the boys plan to take Ross to Ross–Ross, Scotland, that is.

“It’s not really kidnapping, is it?” Kenny said. “He’d have to be alive, wouldn’t he? For it to be a proper kidnapping, I mean.”

What is supposed to be a two-day scheme stretches out to be a longer adventure as lost money, forgotten train tickets, and evading police jeopardize the mission. The biggest threat, however, lies with each other. Together, Ross, Kenny, and Sim all see themselves as the only three people who never wronged or abandoned Ross–not like his sister Caroline (who’d publicly embarrassed him), his ex-girlfriend Nina, the bully Sean Munro, or even Ross’ parents. They easily dismiss the idea that Ross intentionally biked into the oncoming vehicle, but their sureness and friendship are tested as they each question their loyalty. This trip will become a bookmarked chapter in their lives they can’t forget. Expected to fortify their friendship, their willingness (or lack thereof) to speak honestly–to listen and understand–quietly lingers in the background. Difficult to ignore yet subtle, it hovers between the text, and I could sense its claws intimidating to tear an already weakened bond.

Our friendship used to be a solid square, one of us to each other. Things were very different as a triangle.

Ross is what they all gravitated toward in the beginning, and it was Ross who bound the four of them together. Now that Ross is dead, the remaining three will either strengthen their connection or watch it unravel.

Coming-of-age stories, by their nature, are stories most people relate to. They often capture those moments when the simple ignorance of childhood or youthful innocence begins to fray. For me, personally, I enjoy the dynamics of male friendships much more than the bond girls share. Perhaps it’s because I find societal gender roles versus natural male and female relationships interesting, but boys often have a hinted intimacy sitting underneath all that masculinity. It’s an affection that is, naturally, very different from girls. Once these little moments in the story are pieced together and viewed as a whole, it can strike powerfully as touching and meaningful.

Oddly, however, I am apathetic toward Ostrich Boys. Some kind of emotion usually rouses the instant I finish reading a book’s last sentence. Whether I feel happy, disappointed, sad, bored, in love, or relieved, I at least feel something, but I am entirely void. This book is about three friends doing whatever they can to reach their destination–throw in a bungee jump, a few girls, a little bickering, and a car-chase… Well, I just summarized the book for you. Gray could not, no matter how badly I wished he could, hook me into Ostrich Boys. Once again, I’m somewhat to blame. When I read the summary I mentally went back to Stand By Me (the movie, of course, because I sadly haven’t read The Body) and Looking for Alaska. Both are great coming-of-age stories dealing with adventure, friendship, life, and death. Ostrich Boys, however, also deals with those issues, but they are dealt with lightly. I’ll explain:

What I felt Gray failed to add was the right amount emotion, which felt brushed over like a secondary element. The humor helps deliver a light-hearted, young atmosphere, but I missed the sincerity. Indeed, there are moments when one or all three of the boys are caught brooding; albeit, they are short-lived moments. But I mean: hey! Their best friend just died. I know it’s part of our cultural norm for boys to blanket their emotions, but these boys are friends. I didn’t expect the characters to mourn via a sob party, letting their emotions run loose like caged animals desperate to be let out. What I did expect was to witness the boys loosen the grip that’s strangling their feelings, thoughts, and in consequence: their friendship. With that, I thought they would thicken emotional ties that already have, in some way, connected them for life.

Maybe I am wrong, but I’d think Blake, Kenny, and Sim would feel their friendship’s foundation is strong enough to speak to each other. Why do they hesitate? It feels like they don’t completely trust each other enough to know the other two–or at least one of the two–has the third’s back. Just, Gray explores the friendship through Blake’s conversation with Kayleigh:

We phone each other every night, and send each other texts all the time too. It’s not only when we see each other. Boys don’t talk to each other about proper things. I know I can talk to my pals all the time anytime I want and tell them anything.”

I knew there were one or two things I would never dream of telling Kenny or Sim. But maybe I would have talked to Ross about them. . . . “You’re being a bit unfair, aren’t you?” I said. “Okay, maybe we don’t talk all the time, but maybe we don’t need to. I know Kenny and Sim would be there for me if I need them. In fact, just today with that bungee jump? The guy who ran it was a total arsehole, but Kenny and Sim were right by my side all the time.”

But will they always be there for Blake, and is Blake willing to always stand up for Kenny and Sim? There is an interesting moment where Blake comes clean and outs his betrayal to Ross. Sim’s reaction sets the final landing on where they all stand with one another, and that reaction intrigued me. What I would have given for Sim to open up to his friends about his home life, how he felt about Ross’ death, and what the trip meant to him. Regardless, Blake understands Sim better than I or even Kenny, explaining:

“I think Sim looked up to Ross more than any of us. And I bet if Sim could’ve swapped lives with someone, he would’ve jumped at the chance of being Ross for a while.”

Hindered by its own restricted emotional range, I feel disappointed over the book’s shallow exploration and inability to move me. But, in the end, would I recommend Ostrich Boys? I give a tentative “yes.”

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