REVIEW: Sucking Sherbet Lemons (Michael Carson)

At some point about a year and a half ago I bought about fifty different gay coming-of-age novels from Amazon marketplace, and piled them up in a teetering to-be-read pile. Very few of them have actually been worked through yet. Sucking Sherbet Lemons is on the most positively-reviewed: Amazon reviews are all four and five stars, and the press seem to view it as a minor overlooked classic. About a year ago I started reading it and abandoned it after five pages or so. Not because it was bad, per se, but because at the time I was quite busy and it didn’t grip me.

Sometimes books just have to be read at the right time–I picked up the book last week when I had about thirty seconds to grab a book off the shelf before heading to work. I gave it more than five pages, and was hooked. It follows the pursuits of Benson, an overweight Irish Catholic who dreams of heaven as a place where Mars bars grow on trees. He is particularly extreme in his religious fervour, although this doesn’t seem to go well with his growing excitement at witnessing other boys private parts, or his desire to be alone with his older friend Bruno. Split into three segments, Benson disappears off to a monastery to be trained by the Brothers in the second segment, before returning home to be fully awoken to the possibilities of sex and attending his first orgy. (None of this is a spoiler, or if it is, it’s all contained on the back of the book.)

Carson captures the same painful sense of awkward reading that Adrian Mole had, where the reader is stuck between wincing at misinformed, emotionally stunted and social ineptitude, and completely identifying. It’s entirely possible what initially drew me to the novel is that the lead character Benson is fat–something very few novels allow of their protagonist, least of all gay novels. The book is also entirely soaked in Catholicism–to the point where I wonder my own not-exactly-ignorance leaves a few jokes goes under the radar. It does capture Benson’s religious fervour adeptly, without seeming mechanical or unbelievable, and Carson doesn’t shy away from painting religion in shades of grey during Benson’s sojourn with the Brothers in the monastery.

Most unusual about Sucking Sherbet Lemons, bearing in mind the decade it was written, the age of its protagonist and the audience for the novel (although I don’t quite know who that is), is how graphic the sex is. it’s not pornographic, and occasionally it seems to be phrased in a bit of a tip-toeing way, but mostly it doesn’t shy away from anything and is simultaneously filthy and innocent. A few things are glossed over–Benson’s first experience with an older friend is only dubiously consensual, and despite being unblinking about some of the priests interests in their younger charges, Carson doesn’t seem to particularly draw any moral judgement.

And in the end, Carson doesn’t shy away from darker moments, which are all the more powerful for their inclusion in an otherwise quite light narrative. The moment in which one overly zealous novice castrates himself after being ‘tempted into moral sin’ by Brother Michael could have easily been melodrama, but instead is chilling and sad, a standout moment in the novel. Benson’s transformation is palpable by the ending, leaving him dancing in the mirror as no longer a fat, awkward, confused child but a ‘calm wild creature’.

I am quite excited to discover that there are three sequels to the book which take Benson all the way to the age of sixty–I may be ordering these shortly. One small thing is winding me up though, and if you’ve ever read the book perhaps I’ve simply missed a detail? In the orgy at the end, Benson is… serviced… by someone who, as he moves away, Benson says he recognises. We’re never told who–but there are plenty of candidates who it could be, and who could provide plenty of pathos to be revealed. And yet it goes unexplained. As a writer, I quite admire the mystery. As a reader, I would damn well like to know please.

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2 thoughts on “REVIEW: Sucking Sherbet Lemons (Michael Carson)

  1. Having just finished reading the book, I am also intrigued by the same mystery. Have you managed to find the answer to that question? Was it left on purpose so as to address it in one of the sequels?

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