I added The God Box to my amazon wishlist when I was *sixteen* and at some point I must have bought the ebook when it was dirty cheap, and had it hovering around my kindle instead. To anyone who knows me even a little, it should have been obvious why sixteen year old me would have been after this book: the novel concerns a Christian teenager whose struggles with his sexuality are prodded along by the arrival of a new student who is openly gay. In all of Amazon, I challenge you to find more than a handful of YA books that throw these subject matters into the ring together.
Usually when I review things I pick out the positives first, and then the negatives, but I’m going to flip it around today. Let’s get a few things out of the way first. From a writer’s point of view, the first few chapters of this made me wince at the flat, slightly labored writing style – the kind where the love interest, Manuel, is a model of physical perfection whose blue eyes are described with a series of heavy-handed analogies that no-one outside of erotica ever considers. The rest of the characters in the book exist largely to sit at one point or another on the spectrum of acceptance between gay-good-religion-bad and religion-good-gay-bad, and to debate these viewpoints frequently whilst lobbing bible verses at each other. Most of them don’t make it past the barest sketching of a character, especially his various female friends and, unfortunately, his girlfriend Angie, who is one of those quietly accepting characters seemingly stripped of natural human reaction that only really exists in a fiction. And Manuel is essentially a gay version of the ‘manic pixie dream girl’ trope, who functions to be free-spirited and honest to all extremes, measured by his impact on Paul, the narrator.
When I was looking up reviews of the book after I’d finished, I came across one that tickled me. It begins: “The God Box is a novel written to steer youth–chapter by chapter–to the conclusion that homosexuality is normal, inborn, and that any person or institution (like the church) who teaches otherwise is homophobic and hateful.” I’m not going to link to the rest of the review, as I don’t want to boost their traffic, but immediately after that it devolves into “this book will pervert our children!” and all the usual stuff, but in fact, those first few sentences are actually quite correct. This is most definitely a book with an agenda from the outset: to throw up every argument against a fundamentalist homophobe and change their perspective, or to help a confused teenager untangle the knotty conundrum they might be facing in their own head. It actually puts me in mind of the “Christian literature” that I got sporadically fed as a kid, where the religious agenda sings out from every page, and every character is teaching you a lesson about your lifestyle. Of course, whether these books from either side of the camp is a good thing or not depends entirely on your value judgement on either religion or homosexuality, but I’m sure my position is self-evident.
So this book is a) a polemic, and b) heavy-handed. Boil it down to that, and I’m sure we’re not surprised. And more importantly, absolutely neither of those things matter. After my initial discomfort from the first few chapters, the book slowly but surely sucked me in. The frequent arguments and debates, tooled up with bible verse (which crucially is never shallow or ill-informed), as self-conscious as they might be, are bloody good debates, and Sanchez has done an excellent job of pegging out the plethora of perspectives by which people come at the issues. Manuel and Paul’s relationship, although inevitable, is effective, and two scenes in which the tiniest touch of their arms against each other in a cinema is world-shatteringly electric are standouts. By the time I reached the last quarter of the book, in which a significant event I will not reveal occurs, I was completely and emotionally hooked.
And here’s the thing: this book is a sledgehammer. And that is completely and absolutely a good thing. When I was sixteen, I needed this book. I didn’t even have any of my own Christian faith, and my church never openly denounced homosexuality, but falling head over heels for a male friend in that environment was complex, emotionally destructive, and I felt bound so tight it felt impossible to escape unscathed. This book would have blasted through the shadows and laid out a whole, dazzling set of perspectives I could never have dared to hope people held. It would have bulldozed down the walls of my church and let in the light. I really, really wish I had had this book when I was sixteen. At twenty-five, it’s come too late, and I can see all the strings, but for all that, thank god this book exists, and for the right people, this is going to be the right book, at the right time. One day we might be at the point when we really only need novels like this that have the greatest subtlety, stepping carefully through the shades of grey. For now, the wrecking ball is better.