BOOK REVIEW: The Gallopers by Jon Ransom

May 28, 2024

The Gallopers

Jon Ransom

Review by Eric Page

In this second novel from Jon Ransom, three men are bound together in a blistering story that spans 30 years, from 1953 into the 1980s and the AIDS epidemic, The Gallopers is a visceral and mesmerising novel of deceit, desire and loss.

Ransom delivers an atmospheric tour-de-force, skillfully evoking the harsh realities of queer life in 1950s rural England.  The Story follows Eli,  nineteen years old and living alongside a cursed field with his strange aunt Dreama. Six months before, his mother disappeared during the North Sea flood. Unsure of his place in the world and of the man he is becoming, Eli is ready to run.

With a surgeon’s precise prose, Ransom summons the enveloping flatlands and drainage ditches of the Fens, using aquatic metaphors to mirror the depths of desire and shame simmering beneath his characters’ surfaces. Ransom’s visceral sense of place is a triumph – the grey, watery expanses become a looming, menacing presence haunting the decaying family farm at the novel’s center. Like the treacherous currents, interpersonal dynamics shift and eddy, with buried secrets constantly threatening to surface and drown those clinging to propriety. The land itself seems to hold an ancient knowledge, indifferent to human struggles yet inescapably shaping them.

Amid this bleak, liminal landscape play out stories of queer awakening, passionate red-hot lusts, obsessive sexual encounters, along with repression, and persecution. Ransom avoids tidy narrative arcs, instead rendering his characters’ contradictions and inner conflicts with nuance. We see the myriad ways one could experience Queerness in that era – from self-hatred and denial, to furtive expressions of desire, pseudo domestic sexual arrangements,  to hard-won self-acceptance. Yet all exist under the spectre of violence, whether psychological or physical.

Women’s lives are rendered with particular focus on their subjugation and suffering. With few options beyond marriage, many are treated as domestic assets, subjected to male dominance. This grimly realistic backdrop illustrates how the pressures of a patriarchal society wound and distort family structures and post war Britain struggled to put the past in perspective and move on.

Ransom offers us a sensual landscape of lust as detailed and full of wild unknown possibility as the physical is known and mapped. Eli’s sexual experiences are painted with a physical erotic rhythm as he ricochets between two very different men and their ways of being sexual. These encounters and semi relationships are believable, hot and immediate, showing Eli as a man struggling against homophobia and stigma, finding affirmation in sex but confusion in the lack of honest emotional contact in the cauterised bruised ways of his lovers.

In the absence of safe harbours, some of Ransom’s characters turn to folk rituals and magical thinking, grasping for illusions of control and meaning. Their superstitions and local mythologies offer refuge from trauma. While outwardly fanciful, these belief systems reflect very real psychological needs forged under oppression and dislocation.

The stifling societal repression of the era looms large. In this climate of pervasive trauma, we understand why the characters turn inward. Their rituals and folk beliefs provide an illusion of order and meaning in an outwardly implacable world.

What makes “The Gallops” so powerful is how it charts the myriad ways one can experience queerness – from self-denial and self-loathing, to silent endurance and hard-won acceptance. Ransom renders his characters in full vulnerability and contradiction. We see the costs of secrecy and shame, but also the resilience of queer bonds forged in the shadows.

As with his first novel, Ransom showcases masterful restraint – his sparse language conjuring entire emotional worlds through careful implication. With few but exacting words, he evokes the hovering risks of being outed, the fragility of human bonds, and the quiet heroism of persisting authentically amid suffocating norms. The experimental form of the books, with it’s middle section a one-act play titled The Gallopers, written by Eli three decades on, and based on a different perspective of the protagonists didn’t quite land for me, adding nothing to the book and distracting me, perhaps this is Ransom’s point here.

The Gallopers is a haunting, immersive portrait of queer lives in a bygone era. Ransom’s willingness to depict the nuances of LGBTQ experiences – from anguish to resilience – and his bold unequivocal exploration of men finding sexual comfort with each other, makes this a vital work of Queer meta historical fiction. With his atmospheric command of setting and piercing insights into the human condition, he has cemented himself as one of the most exciting voices in the literary canon today.

Out now £14.99 hardback

For more info or to order the book see the publishers website here