In his sophomore novel, THINGS WE COULDN’T SAY, Hoosier-native Jay Coles explores the coming-of-age of Gio Zander, and in the process writes a love song to queer teens of color everywhere.
Gio Zander is a Black, bisexual teen boy, living an okay, not terrible, not great life on Indianapolis’s west side. He attends Ben Davis, plays basketball, refuses to let his English teacher live out her white savior fantasy, and keeps his circle of friends close.
At home, he contends with an alcoholic preacher father, a loving stepmother who never oversteps, a little brother suffering from a lot of anxiety, and the shadow of their birth mother, who abandoned them years ago.
Over time, Gio has made himself content with his sports prospects and his friends. Those friends, Ayesha and Olly complete Gio’s world, and they’re thick with shared history. The trio are rarely apart, and all three feel the crash when Gio’s long-lost mother reappears unexpectedly. The friends also try to absorb the impact when a new student from Iowa, David, arrives at Ben Davis to challenge Gio’s basketball prowess, and his heart.
Coles’ gift with fully-realized characters allows him to paint the mutilayered intersections in Gio’s life with grace. The tender relationship Gio has with his brother and stepmother contrasts in vivid detail to the contentious one he has with his father and birth mother. The happy reunions Gio imagined burn away when he’s faced with the reality of his mother in the flesh.
In writing Gio, Coles especially treats him with much love and care. Gio can be angry, he can cry; he can be vulnerable and strong. There’s no shame that he needed to see a therapist for his depression. Nor is there shame when the cascading emotions of his birth mother’s return leaves him reeling.
Contrary to many depictions of teen boys, Gio is also allowed to have and set boundaries for himself, both with his mother, and in his burgeoning romance with David. The hard discussion he has with David, explaining that racism and homophobia are not analogous, is a particularly moving moment. Likewise, discussions of consent are necessary and natural in Coles’ hands.
Some adult readers may find it frustrating that Gio ultimately rejects his mother’s entreaties for a new relationship. However, young readers, especially those with complicated relatives, will recognize a teen who gets to decide that toxic family is no family at all. It’s validating and empowering for young people, who are also at the mercy of their age and their parents, to see a character like them make the best decision he can for himself.
Gio’s final conclusion is this: “The future is uncertain, but looking at each person around me, I’ve found my light.”
Jay Coles made a promise with his debut novel that he would be a standout voice in YA for years to come. With THINGS WE COULDN’T SAY, he keeps that promise, becoming a light for his young readers. A stirring read.
Saundra Mitchell has been a phone psychic, a car salesperson, a denture-deliverer and a layout waxer. She’s dodged trains, endured basic training, and hitchhiked from Montana to California. The author of nearly twenty books for tweens and teens, Mitchell’s work includes Edgar Award nominee SHADOWED SUMMER, THE VESPERTINE series, Indiana Author Award Winner and Lambda Nominee ALL THE THINGS WE DO IN THE DARK, as well as the CAMP MURDERFACE series with Josh Berk. She is the editor of four anthologies for teens, DEFY THE DARK, ALL OUT, OUT NOW and the forthcoming OUT THERE. She always picks truth; dares are too easy.
Monthly reviews of books written by Indiana authors are made possible by the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Awards and Indiana Humanities. Opinions expressed in this review are solely those of the reviewer, not any affiliated entity.