Bruises: Boys Don't Cry
by Archimede Fusillo
Published by Camberwell Penguin
96 pages, 2004
Reviewed by Sue Bursztynski
Archimede Fusillo is the author of a number of young adult novels about growing up male and Italian. The first, Sparring With Shadows, had autobiographical elements, as did the second, The Dons. Since then, there has been a gently funny novel for younger teens, An Earful of Static, and a number of stories for children. He has won several prizes and been shortlisted in the Australian Children's Book Council Awards and no wonder.
Fusillo is the kind of writer who can make you laugh and cry, sometimes both at once, as in the wonderful The Dons, which was about a young boy's relationship with his Alzheimer's-afflicted grandfather.
If you're young and male, you'll probably recognize a number of the issues that affect teenage boys in all Fusillo's work, but you don't have to be young or male to appreciate the power of the writing. Fusillo is one of those writers for teenagers who remembers what it's like to be one, and that's not something that can be said of many.
What it's like to be a teenage boy forms a large part of this new novel. And Bruises: Boys Don't Cry, is the darkest of all his works to date. Even The Dons, which had a sad premise, had plenty of humor and was ultimately feel-good, with the young hero proudly taking his beloved grandfather to his school. Bruises starts with bullying at a school camp and hurtles along to the inevitable tragedy.
The story is seen from the viewpoint of Falco Petrone, whose brother, Val, is finally dying of the illness he has had from birth. The illness has hung over the heads of Falco's family all his life and he has brought the stress with him to the camp. He is one of five boys in a hut and most of them have one problem or another. Brad had to leave his last school in a hurry, for dark reasons. There's the bully, Ape, who has his own secrets, and his sidekick, Anthony, whom he bullies as much as anyone else, but who tags along anyway. Ape starts bullying his fellow students from day one, but the only one who stands up to him. Brad, pays for it. It takes most of the novel and a tragedy for Falco to overcome his own concerns and stand up to Ape himself, on behalf of everyone, including the strangely weak teachers.
The weakness of the teachers is a little odd, actually. Mr. Tallis and Miss Buongiorno are kind and generally well-liked by the students, but don't seem capable of handling the bullying. Personally, I have never known a physical education teacher who wasn't tough as nails. The ones I know would have knocked heads together, separated the bully from his sidekick and his victims and probably sent him home, if he'd been allowed to come at all. But then there wouldn't have been a novel -- and the author does acknowledge the weakness of these particular teachers, who have to live with what has happened on their watch.
There is at least one point of comparison between Ape and Falco: both boys have adored older brothers. Ape's brother Jack is in jail, Falco's is dying. Ape, who is trying to live up to his brother's crooked ways, regularly quotes Jack's teachings about life, the universe and everything. Falco's brother has been a mentor and he has been expected to "replace" Val as the player of the accordion traditionally given to the oldest son. Falco doesn't want to play the instrument, as much because it reminds him Val is dying as because he doesn't like it.
As with Fusillo's other novels, this is about being a teenage boy, with all that implies. Boys don't cry -- or admit to being bullied. Anthony would rather be shoved around by Ape and bask in what he sees as reflected strength than break free. This, and the fact that others are prepared to live with the bullying, end up costing a life.
But that's boys for you. Perhaps some will find the novel painful, but I suspect most boys will like it and relate to the problems faced by the characters. | September 2004
Sue Bursztynski is a children's and fantasy writer and librarian based in Australia.