Scratches on the surface is an excellent book. The beginning is riveting. A group of teenage boys give Derek a severe bashing and leave him bleeding in a field, but one of the boys, overcome with guilt, returns to help him. Thus begins the story of Derek, the self-harming homosexual, and Taylor, the devout Christian. Derek is a confronting personality, a difficult and not particularly likeable character – at least on the surface – but he sees the world with a deeper perception than many and his honestly forces Taylor to confront his own homosexuality.
This is a painful process for Taylor, particularly in light of the Christian outlook on homosexuality. The book documents his journey as he comes to terms with his feelings for Derek and discovers the truth about Kenny, a man who mentored him in the Scouts.
Taylor is a beautiful character. He has an endearing honesty and purity about him that makes him a powerful character. His faith is strong too. Rather than reject God, as he could so easily do, he searches for meaning in the situations he finds himself in. He tries to understand Derek’s promiscuity and self-harming but has to accept that he can’t actually stop him doing either.
Derek is an extremely mixed up kid, and yet by the end of the book, I had some insight into why he did what he did. The way he treats his foster mother is painful to read. The elderly woman is portrayed as a rather sad character, but she does her best with a boy who is determined not to accept love in any form. Derek’s unreasonable hatred of her is confronting, but we come to understand that what he actually hates is what he sees as her dishonesty. Luckily, Taylor’s love eventually does have an affect on Derek.
What this book shows is that even the most mixed up people have reasons for their actions, no matter how incomprehensible they may be to others. Also, we have no idea of the person inside the facade they present to the world or the depth, or otherwise, of their personal insights.
The emotional depth and insight into the characters is the strength of this book, as well as the depth of its exploration of positive parenting values on the ability of teens to handle difficult times in a healthy way. I really liked how Taylor’s parents handled the situation. His father’s honesty and willingness to see his own failings and apologise for them was refreshing.
The story is well-paced and follows several related threads, but overall we read to find out how Taylor comes to terms with his sexuality and how it changes his relationship to those around him. This may sound like a heavy book, but Taylor and his family are such positive roll models that the overall effect is inspiring rather than depressing.
Although Scratches on the Surface is about two high school students, I wouldn’t call it a young adult novel, not because of the subject matter – homosexuality and self harming – but because of the mature perspective it takes. To call it YA is to limit it. I’d call it new adult, something that can be enjoyed and appreciated by both teens and adults. In fact, as with all the best YA books on social issues, parents will get as much, if not more, value from it as teens. I highly recommend this book to all readers who would like insight into these issues.
There are a few instances of clumsy prose and a few typos, but not enough to mar the overall quality of the book. Highly recommended.