Book Review: The Year Of Ice by Brian Malloy

A friend of mine recently gave me his copy of “The Year of Ice” by Brian Malloy to read, and it took me no time at all to read it, because I was engrossed.

The story follows an 18-year-old named Kevin Doyle, and it is set in 1978 in the Twin Cities. But what the story is really about is dealing with trauma and psychological wounds, and with secrets.

Let’s start with the trauma.

Kevin is still coping with the death of his mother from two years prior, and he’s also deeply closeted, unwilling and unable to come to grips with his own sexuality. It’s those twin struggles that drives Kevin’s story over the course of the novel.

The author, Brian Malloy, writes with a natural voice and I felt like I was reading someone’s private, inner thoughts. So often, books like these feel like Books, where characters Think and Do Things. The protagonist often has Deep and Profound Thoughts.

That’s not really the case here, because Malloy fully inhabits the voice of Kevin, and it really feels like you’re listening to an 18-year-old’s thought process – often stupid, sometimes maddening, but compelling. I couldn’t wrench my eyes away from the page.

And lest this sounds like I’m damning Malloy with faint praise, let me be clear that what he’s managed to accomplish is a sign of his skill as a writer. Kevin feels real in ways many characters don’t, and so when reading about his pain and heartache, and the process of dealing with guilt, rage, despair, lust, and all these other emotions, the reader is right there with him.

Of course, Kevin isn’t always sympathetic, mind you. He can be a real asshole to the people he cares about, and he takes out his sexual frustration on innocent targets.

Not that those around him are more deserving of sympathy. The other theme, aside from trauma, is how people cling to their secrets, and how those secrets inform their worldview, and the way they treat others. Little by little, secrets are revealed and unveiled, forcing Kevin to rethink his own trauma, his own feelings of guilt and shame, his own emotions towards his dead mother, his deadbeat dad, his fiery aunt, and others.

That said, Kevin isn’t always quite three dimensional, and sometimes the book has trouble maintaining the two threads of thought. Sometimes it feels like it’s on the verge of being all about his repressed sexuality; at other times, it feels more like it’s going to be about his relationship with his parents. Malloy isn’t always successful at balancing the two storylines, and the resolution at the end isn’t quite as fulfilling as I hoped. It just sort of ends neatly, with no real rhyme or reason behind a breakthrough.

(And this is a minor pet peeve of mine, but it is repeated several times in this book: Malloy writes “would of” instead of “would have” or “would’ve” – really? No agent or editor or beta reader caught that?)

Still, this book is very readable, and when it does deal with his trauma well, it’s a compelling read, one that draws a reader in. Recommended to YA LGBT readers, particularly gay ones. It’s an honest, complicated, messy look at the inner life of a teen who’s going through some shit.

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