“As a boy growing up in the western suburbs of Sydney, Tom Houghton escapes the harshness of the schoolyard by cocooning himself in the cinema of the golden age of Hollywood.
When he discovers that his favourite actress, Katharine Hepburn, modelled herself on her brother, Thomas Houghton Hepburn, Tom sinks deeper into his fantasy life. Determined to reveal his true identity to the world, Tom is propelled on a torturous path with disastrous consequences.
Almost thirty years later, Tom is offered an acting role at a festival in Scotland. With the rigours of his past finally catching up with him, fantasy and reality struggle for control and Tom finds himself questioning everything he thought he knew about himself.” (simonandschuster.com.au)
The thing that stood out most for me while reading Tom Houghton was the realness of it, and there’s an intimacy to it that comes from being able to look so closely at a person’s life from the perspective of both their childhood and adulthood – that I think makes Tom Houghton quite a confronting book to read.
We move between two narratives, beginning with Tom as an adult and then shifting to him as a twelve year old. I found the narrative following older Tom fairly inconsequential, and as a character I didn’t like him that much. Having said that, the way he is, is a direct result of the what happens in the narrative of young Tom and what he experienced as a child. In a promotional video for the book, the author, Todd Alexander, says:
“What happens to you as a kid, indelibly impacts who you turn into as an adult, and that at it’s core is what this book is about. People are very complex. Lying just beneath the veneer of the people we’re very quick to judge, is an entire history of a person, and that history has shaped who they are today. And if we can empathise with that history and understand them just that little bit better, then our relationships will improve immeasurably.” (YouTube)
As a twelve year old Tom is confused about his sexuality; highly intelligent; and is apart from his classmates in all ways possible. He is a loner, and his makes him an easy target for bullying. In order to escape reality, he immerses himself in a fantasy world built on the golden era of Hollywood. which Alexander says only acts to “solidify his position as social outcast”.
If I’d read a book about Tom that only showed him as an adult, I would probably hate him as a character. But the juxtaposition of his adult life with his childhood probably makes me feel sympathy towards him more than anything else. Young Tom knew who he was and who he wanted to be, and was determined to show that person to the world. As a character, he is the perfect example of how society can often make us turn away from the person the we want to be, and instead become something we feel we are expected to be. We are forced to conform, and even if we don’t entirely conform, we are bound to lose something of our real self in the process.
Tom Houghton is a sad and sobering reminder of how more often than not, being different – which we are always told is ok to be – can lead to being made a target and the impacts this can have later in life.