A heartfelt and magical take on the LGBTQIA+ teen experience, Natalya Newman
Tim Te Maro and the Subterranean Heartsick Blues
Hardie Grant Books
November 09, 2021
Published in 2021 and winner of the 2021 Ampersand Prize, H.S. Valley’s Tim Te Maro and the Subterranean Heartsick Blues is a tale of the nature of relationships, an exploration of the magic in our lives, and a comforting spark of life for LGBTQIA+ youth in New Zealand.
This novel follows the story of Tim Te Maro, a Year 13 student at Fox Glacier High School for the Magically Adept in New Zealand. Although magic has been present all of his life, as his mum and dad both wield it, Tim’s recent experiences at school have been anything but magical. With his dad leaving to go off and do who-knows-what, his girlfriend leaving him for someone else, and Elliott and the rest of the Minders aggravating him in every waking moment, Tim Te Maro is most certainly down on his luck. Despite his best friends’ attempts at cheering him up after his breakup, which honestly isn’t doing much considering they’re hopelessly in love with each other, Tim is feeling more lonely than ever.
So, when Ms Van Mill announces that for their Life Skills class they would be taking care of a semi-sentient egg baby with the partners that they had picked out beforehand, a small window of opportunity presents itself. It turns out that Elliott is feeling just as lonely as Tim is after being abandoned by his roommate-with-benefits (who just so happened to have left him for Tim’s girlfriend), so he and Tim agree to join forces and humiliate their exes. They decide to switch partners, both to put their exes’ new relationship through the strainer and to spare themselves the unavoidable suffering of being paired with people they would rather avoid eye contact with. What Tim doesn’t expect is for Elliott to revive his curiosity and urge to be with a guy, and soon enough, their dynamic has a spanner thrown in the works as they become something different.
What happens when your enemy becomes your friend… with benefits?
Whatever the two expect to come out of this arrangement, which is stated from the beginning to be only in place as long as the egg-baby dilemma, there is one possibility that Tim Te Maro has not entertained and certainly not prepared for. What happens when you think you’re developing feelings for your enemy-turned-friend-with-benefits? In the mind of Tim Te Maro, nothing good.
The cover of this novel is done in tones of red, yellow, and blue. These are all primary colours, and their combination hints at some of the themes of the novel. Although Tim and Elliott are distinct opposites, they have the possibility to come together and shift into something more, just as the primary colours combine to create new colours. The soft and smooth design of the cover draws attention to the book and reels readers in with promises of growth for the characters, as the primary colours join to reveal new possibilities and hues. This subtle use of colour is both aesthetically appealing and gives a hint at the change that the characters go through during the story.
Valley covers the concept of late teen experiences in this book, and uses the distinctive narrative voice of Tim Te Maro to hook readers attention and keep them enthralled in the story. The entire novel has a strong, humorous undertone that keeps the reader laughing and engaged even during the more serious topics of discovering one’s identity and experiencing the sudden absence of a parent. Although serious themes can have the power to either draw the reader in or push them away, Valley achieves a sincere exploration of them through humour and the familiarity of the setting and characters.
As Tim Te Maro and the Subterranean Heartsick Blues is a YA fantasy novel set in New Zealand, Valley has already introduced something that I have not seen often enough in fiction. I admire the way Valley crafted the characters with unique, Kiwi voices. The dynamics of the characters remind me of those which I see in my own life, and I thus found it comforting and familiar to submerge myself in the story. The beauty in NZ youth reading books in places that we are familiar with is that we can immerse ourselves in the world and story without worrying whether we will fit in with it. When books do not often tell your story, or when you see no characters that look like you, it can be disheartening and discouraging for readers and overall diminish their enthusiasm and wonder towards literature.
The magic of the unique, New Zealand perspective in this book embraces readers and guides them through something familiar enough to be comforting, and at the same time unfamiliar enough to be absolutely wonderful. Tim Te Maro and the Subterranean Heartsick Blues is also soothing because of its sweet and heartfelt representation of LGBTQIA+ youth in New Zealand. To me, this book feels like coming home as I feel both emotionally connected to LGBTQIA+ characters and grew up reading fantasy. I’ve recently been reading more modern, realistic, YA books, so this combination of regular life with the natural occurrence of magic feels like reconciling with the past and greeting an old friend.
I would recommend this book to anyone who has enjoyed Invisibly Breathing by Eileen Merriman, Carry On by Rainbow Rowell, and All Out by Saundra Mitchell. Merriman writes of the experience of LGBTQIA+ teens, Rowell writes of both modern magic and LGBTQIA+ teens, and All Out is an amalgamation of Queer short stories throughout history, with aspects of magic woven through some of the pieces.
When a novel has the power to immerse a reader completely and connect to an audience that is not often so directly targeted, it is definitely a piece of literature to catch the eye of readers. If you enjoy a humorous, magical take on the LGBTQIA+ teen experience, this book is for you!
- Natalya Newman lives in Whangārei.