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Fiction Friendship

Monday Rent Boy

by (author) Susan Doherty

Random House of Canada
Initial publish date
Mar 2024
Friendship, Crime, Coming of Age
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Mar 2024
    List Price

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By the author of the award-winning The Ghost Garden, a bravely imagined, deeply empathetic novel of two adolescent boys, bound by friendship and a terrible secret. With love and sex so deeply entwined with betrayal and abuse, how does a boy grow up?

Monday Rent Boy begins in Somerset, England, in the mid-1980s, with the winning and heart-warming story of two 13-year-old friends and fellow altar boys, Arthur Barnes and Ernie Castlefrank. Endearing outcasts, they try not to speak of the secret tie that binds them: both boys are routinely preyed on by The Zipper, their nickname for Father Ziperto, the local Catholic priest. Still, they find adventure and release in the mischief they get up to together, as each also tries to survive in other ways. Arthur, a great reader and denier of reality, finds an ally in town bookseller Marina Phillips. Ernie, a gifted mathematician and animal lover, is not so lucky. As he and Arthur age out of the abuse, Ernie notices younger and equally vulnerable boys being recruited. When he tries to blow the whistle, nobody believes him. At 16, he disappears, a loss that almost destroys his best friend but also confirms for Arthur that he was smart to stay silent.

Arthur eventually also turns his back on the mystery of Ernie's disappearance, but his bookselling mentor and friend Marina Phillips finds a way to follow Ernie where rage and betrayal has led him—into the darkest corners of the dark web—a search that ultimately helps Arthur reckon with what happened to them both. In the novel’s stunning, deeply affecting conclusion, Doherty draws a line directly from the covered-up abuse of children by Catholic priests to the current proliferation of child pornography and predators online—miraculously revealing the true heart of darkness while managing to affirm the light.

About the author

Contributor Notes

SUSAN DOHERTY's award-winning debut novel, A Secret Music (2015), was followed four years later by The Ghost Garden, the biography of a woman living with schizophrenia. She has worked on staff for Maclean's, and freelanced for the International Herald Tribune, La Tribune de Genève, and the Independent in London; for eighteen years she ran her own advertising production company. She has served on the boards of the Royal Conservatory of Music, the Quebec Writers' Federation and Nazareth House, a home for those afflicted by addiction and homelessness. Since 2009, she has volunteered at the Douglas Institute, a psychiatric hospital, working with people living with severe mental illness. She is married to the educator Hal Hannaford.

Excerpt: Monday Rent Boy (by (author) Susan Doherty)



If not for an ordinary bookshop in my hometown of Glastonbury, I would have fallen through the cracks into an unsavoury life.
I was hiding behind a shelf in the Copperfield and Twist when the proprietor appeared out of nowhere and caught me cutting a page from a copy of The Prophet. I thought I was done for. Miss Phillips extended her palm, and I was about to give her the slim volume, when she plucked the severed page from my hand. My green Stanley knife clattered to the wooden floor. As my eyes followed the blade, Miss Phillips stood, as erect as a retired ballerina, silently reading the passage from Khalil Gibran that I had circled in black ink—one I’d planned to plagiarize for a homework assignment. I have learned silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet strange, I am ungrateful to these teachers.
Miss Phillips bent down for my knife, disabled the blade, and tucked it into the side-slit pocket of her green and blue tartan skirt. Despite her apparent nonchalance, I could practically hear the police sirens wail. She led me to a small bench near the wildlife section and motioned for me to sit down.
“I’m so sorry, Miss Phillips,” I blurted, staring at her name tag pinned near a severe collarbone. “I’ll pay for the book, even if I have to steal the money,” a statement I straightaway regretted.
“Don’t move,” she said, and disappeared into her office. She was gone for so long I began to hope she had forgotten about me. It had been three months since I’d been ushered into the back seat of a police vehicle for stealing a box of Arm & Hammer laundry detergent from Cheap Jack’s in Wells. I wasn’t anxious to face the copper again, who had looked at me with open incomprehension. Laundry detergent? What the hell?
I was about to slink away when Miss Phillips returned and handed me a sheaf of papers stapled in one corner. Her pale blue eyes seemed tired rather than judgmental as they roamed my face looking for answers. I glanced down at the title page, and then quickly flipped through the rest. She had photocopied all twenty-six of Khalil Gibran’s poetic fables—107 pages, still warm from the Xerox machine. In that instant I felt like Jean Valjean after he stole the bishop’s silver candlesticks. If only Miss Phillips knew that I had also cut a dozen pages from her Gray’s Anatomy a week earlier in order to examine a woman’s body under the covers in my bedroom. I didn’t deserve her mercy, and so it hardly seemed appropriate to ask for my knife, whose handle still peeked from the pocket of her skirt.
After she took down my name and phone number, she ordered me home. I stammered my thanks and fled to the High Street. For days, the wall-mounted phone in our tiny kitchen was the only appliance I could see. If it rang, I planned to intercept the call before my mother could pick up and then stretch the beige cord all the way into the cupboard under the stairs. I wasn’t certain my mother and I could survive another transgression. She’d just found a half-pound of semi-melted butter stashed under my bed, her nose somehow discerning it from all the other adolescent smells in my fusty room. She’d accused me of stealing it from Sainsbury’s and I had, inspired by a screening of Last Tango in Paris. I’d snuck into the Revival House Theatre in Bridgwater, and after the movie, I’d taken the long bus ride home transfixed by the young Parisian girl and her clandestine relationship with a much older businessman eager for violent buttery sex. At least my mother didn’t have the faintest idea about why I’d wanted the butter.
While lying on my bed waiting for the phone to ring, I made a mental list of the bits and bobs I’d recently stolen with my accomplice and best friend, Ernie Castlefrank: one Commodore calculator still in its original package, two pairs of aviator sunglasses like the ones Al Pacino wore in Scarface, countless Old Jamaica chocolate bars, and a Swiss Army knife with a corkscrew. My mother would have been frantic about all those thefts, but she would cry in shame to learn I’d defaced a book, her tears a far worse punishment than a tongue-lashing or a stay-at-home order.
She and I lived on our own in a cramped two-bedroom flat above Alfredo’s tailor shop on Norbins Road. Alfredo owned the building, and after my father died a few years ago, my mother had done her best to pay him the rent on time, something that happened a little more often now she had earnings from selling life insurance on commission. Not only was Alfredo unfailingly kind to us both, I appreciated the cloth dummy of a shapely woman he called Lolita that he displayed next to a vintage Singer sewing machine in his shop window to attract customers. He’d recently hired a young seamstress who’d shared several copies of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comic books with me and Ernie on the sly. Neither of us had the means to achieve the stoned state of blissful torpor that was the brothers’ mission in life, but on bad days we both felt just as freakish and at odds with the world.
Alfredo mended for us—my mother was not good with a needle— and in exchange for the services of his lightning hands, she baked him apple pies with roasted walnuts from a family recipe that was so covered in grease it was illegible to everyone except her. It’s not for nothing that Glastonbury was once called the Isle of Avalon—the isle of apples. Mum had grown up in her parents’ apple orchard in Haselbury Plucknett, a stone’s throw from the town of Crewkerne, and had gone from high school straight to cookery classes at the Tante Marie school in Woking, Surrey. That’s where she learned to bake with lemongrass, juniper berries and cardamom, ingredients as foreign as a ruble for anyone else in town. She came alive in the kitchen, chopping raw ginger in her Wallis Simpson apron that said, You can never be too rich or too thin. She has never been either, and it was doubtful she ever would be, but it didn’t stop from her dreaming.
On the phone talking about premiums, she showed only a deathly boredom. Every few weeks or so, she’d lose another client, whereas the pies were fighting for space in the freezer. Her greatest wish, delivered with a punishing frequency, was that I would attend university and thereby attain the freedom to choose my own destiny. Rarely did she go so far as to explain that she wanted this for me because her own freedom had been truncated by a teenage pregnancy one year into her culinary education. Me. She hid many of the details of her chance first meeting with my dad, but I did know I was conceived after three sips of Dufftown on a train trip from Woking to Edinburgh, and that my soon-to-be father was fresh from a winning streak at the racecourse in Musselburgh. To avoid a scandal, she was confined to the family orchard for the term of her pregnancy. Likely, my grandparents were looking for a way to help her cut ties with a much older gambler. But her passion for the stranger on the train remained undimmed. Quite the opposite. He sent a marriage proposal by telegram, and she accepted. His death six years after I was born left a hole in my mother’s heart that has yet to be filled.
When money was tight, which was always, she said it was a comfort to know their wedding rings and a few other unnamed valuables were housed in a safety deposit box at the Lloyds bank in Shepton Mallet. In my mother’s bedroom, behind the framed reproduction of a Degas ballet dancer, hung a key with a bank routing number etched on its golden head. “For a rainy day,” she said when I was old enough to share her terrible worries about the bills, but not yet old enough to be her confidant.

Editorial Reviews

A McNally Robinson and Winnipeg Free Press bestseller

“This unflinching yet incredibly gentle depiction of the experience of two boys abused in the Catholic Church brings to life a tragedy that ended up being global in scope but began as unspeakable acts committed against one child after another. A stunning, literary take on a dark, heartbreaking slice of humanity.” —Carrie Mac, bestselling author of Last Winter

“Susan Doherty brilliantly brings to life the soaring, simple joy of childhood, even as she guides us fearlessly and fascinatingly into the origins of the dark web. Monday Rent Boy is a compelling page-turner, a sensitive yet stark portrait of crimes against childhood and ultimately a triumphant testament to the healing power of friendship.” —Ann-Marie MacDonald, award-winning author of Fayne

Monday Rent Boy is a masterfully wrought novel that goes to some very dark places—secluded church vestries, locked basements, the murkiest corners of child exploitation. But Susan Doherty, armed with a belief in the inherent value of truth-telling, stares down every horror. Like her characters Arthur and Ernie—fending for themselves and each other against seemingly insuperable odds—her writing holds out hope.” —Ian McGillis, journalist and author of A Tourist’s Guide to Glengarry

“If fools rush in where angels fear to tread, then Susan Doherty is the holiest of fools. Her haunting, brave, brilliantly realized work exposes with a nuanced compassion the devastating effects of the ‘dark web’ that is pedophilia. Only radical love can counter radical evil, and this extraordinary book lights the way.” —James FitzGerald, author of What Disturbs Our Blood, winner of the 2010 Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize

“A searing novel that cuts painfully close to the truth: the vulnerability of children, the sly grooming by sexual predators, the guilt, the fearful silence and the buried secrets of the victims—and how the Internet made all of this a multi-million-dollar business. This book will shock, scare and anger you—all the more so because it is all too real.” —Julian Sher, author of One Child at a Time: The Global Fight to Rescue Children from Online Predators
“An unflinching exploration of the traumatic legacy of childhood sexual abuse that is rife with anger, but also offers hope of a way forward.” Toronto Star