The hotly anticipated novel other publishers deemed too gay to publish, from the Editor-in-Chief of Attitude Magazine
Unbound’s fastest-ever-funded novel, with pledges from David Walliams, S.J. Watson, and Mark Gatiss, as well as from countries where to be gay is currently still illegal
Published to coincide with Madonna’s 60th birthday
Charlie Matthews’ love story begins in a pebble-dashed house in suburban Bolton, at a time when most little boys want to grow up to be Michael Jackson, and girls want to be Princess Di. Remembering the Green Cross Code and getting out of football are the most important things in his life, until Auntie Jan gives him a gift that will last a lifetime: a seven-inch single called ‘Lucky Star’…
On his ninth birthday, Charlie discovers Madonna, and falls in love. His obsession sees him through some tough times in life: being persecuted at school, fitting in at a posh university, a glamorous career in London, finding boyfriends, getting rid of boyfriends, and family heartbreak. Madonna’s music and videos inspire him, and her fierce determination to succeed gives him the confidence to do the same – and, ultimately, to let go of his idol, and find his own voice.
Many thanks to Matt Cain, Unbound and Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for inviting me to read The Madonna of Bolton and for my ecopy of the book.
I first heard about The Madonna of Bolton last year when it hit the headlines after being deemed 'too gay' by mainstream publishers. I'm a cis straight woman so presumably those publishers assumed I'd be the sort of person who wouldn't be interested on reading a coming-of-age story about a gay man. I'm so pleased then that thanks to Unbound I was able to read this wonderful semi-autobiographical novel because I thoroughly enjoyed it.
We are first introduced to Charlie Matthews on his ninth birthday. He is delighted to open his presents - felt tip pens and art materials, Star Wars figures and an Ewok Village - though less excited by the Bolton Wanderers football kit, plastic soldiers and Computer Battleship game. His favourite present is the brand new Soda Stream. I remember the 'Get busy with the fizzy - Soda Stream' advert well and was so jealous when my cousins had one so I can easily understand Charlie's excitement. However, his Auntie Jan gives him something which turns out to be far more special and which will ultimately help influence his whole life. Though the rest of his family are less enamoured, Charlie falls in love with Madonna the first time he hears 'Lucky Star.'
The book follows Charlie as he grows up, through his troubled school years when he is taunted and bullied as he realises he is gay but is terrified by the implications. Though I'd never suggest things are easy for young LGBTQIA+ teens these days, it's easy to forget just how much the world has moved on. I still remember the furore over the kiss between Colin and Barry on EastEnders, those frightening iceberg public awareness films about AIDS and the ridiculous stories that went round about celebrities like Marc Almond. The Madonna of Bolton references these darker moments in our history, reminding us too that thanks to Section 28, homosexuality couldn't be discussed in schools which meant that scores of children like Charlie were forced to grow up scared, alone and ashamed.
Charlie though, has Madonna and she becomes his beacon of hope as her championing of gay culture helps him accept who he is. Throughout the years, as he leaves home and goes to university, finds love and experiences heartbreak; through the exciting highs of a career in London to the lows of loss when it seems he may lose himself too, Madonna and her music is there for him to celebrate, to cling to, to be inspired by, to live by. Ultimately though Charlie must learn to find himself - can he move out from Madonna's protective shadow to finally live his own dreams?
There is so much I could relate to in The Madonna of Bolton. I grew up in a council house in the '80s so the cultural references really struck a chord with me but I could also empathise with that feeling of being an outsider. I was never bullied to the extent Charlie is but I was painfully shy, skinny and studious and with my regulation NHS glasses I was regularly reminded that I was a 'four-eyes', 'made the walls jealous' or looked like a Cambodian or Ethiopian (depending on the current Blue Peter appeal). I found solace in my records too, for me it was Wham! and George Michael but Madonna was still an integral part of my formative years - a few bars of Crazy for You is enough to transport me back to those wallflower school disco days.
The Madonna of Bolton is such an emotive novel; there were parts I read where my heart ached and the tears rolled down my face and yet it's often sharply observational and very funny. There's a Bridget Jones-esque quality to a few of Charlie's friendships which gives the book some slightly inappropriate yet irresistible laughs. This is one of those books that touched me deeply, whether I was reading it with a big smile on my face or with a lump in my throat. It's a deeply honest, witty and poignant novel which will resonate with anybody who enjoys engaging and candid writing and I loved every word. Highly recommended.
The Madonna of Bolton is published by Unbound and can be purchased here.
About the Author
As a journalist Matt has contributed articles to all the major UK newspapers and in 2017 was voted Diversity in Media's Journalist of the Year. In Spring 2018 he stepped down as Editor-in-Chief of Attitude, the UK's biggest-selling magazine for gay men. He lives in London.