The first page of Anna Whitwham’s Boxer Handsome is what you might expect from a novel about boxing. The protagonist, Bobby “the Yid,” squares off and fights Connor, “the Gypsy Boy.” The scene’s vocabulary belongs to the ring: skip and spar, bags and pads. Connor lands a few punches, cuts Bobby’s eye, but this is expected. It’s boxing—except that suddenly it’s not. Connor is wearing rings on his hands instead of gloves. He pushes Bobby into mud instead of mats. The first fight in Boxer Handsome is a street brawl over a girl, Theresa.
Set in contemporary East London, Boxer Handsome follows Bobby’s life for just over a week as he prepares for another fight with Connor. This one is organized, though; it is an actual boxing match. The two grew up in the same neighborhood and train together at the Clapton Bow Boys Club, but their fathers are old enemies, and from the very first page Bobby and Connor are rivals, mostly over love interests. Due to Bobby’s quick temper, the situation is explosive long before the big fight.
Whitwham is an enjoyably deceptive writer. This feint prefigures a technique she uses throughout the novel: she lets us think the story is building in a certain way, but then it zigzags. This can be excellent, one of the biggest pleasures in the novel. The relationship between Bobby’s separated parents, Maggie and Joe, turns sweet and sad when we are prepared for aggression. Bobby himself steps away from violence at the very moment it seems he never will. Even the language ducks our expectations, shifting from brutal to tender. In the boxing club an “army of boys [are] ferocious and focused, everyone hitting hard like an off-the-beat soldier’s march,” but a few paragraphs later those same boys “wrapped their arms around each other when their rounds were done, gasping for air through their gum shields. … As one was praised the other waited his turn and scratched at his squashed face with his gloves like a dog.”
However, Whitwham’s dodges just as often leave unsatisfying gaps in the novel, especially in characterization. Bobby’s best friend, Mikey, for whom he readily pummels an innocent man, proves close to irrelevant. Theresa’s desire for independence quickly declines into cheap revenge. Bobby’s ethnic identity seems crucial in the first scene, as he fights Connor “the Gypsy Boy” over the half-traveller Theresa, but Whitwham barely returns to the idea for over a hundred pages. When she does, it is only to tell us that it’s “Cartoon drama. Bobby was as Jewish as the Pakistani boss of the post office.” Once she has made a point of describing Bobby’s Irish-Jewish ancestry, Whitwham’s choice not to explore it leaves us feeling unfulfilled and Bobby less developed than he easily could have been.
Bobby’s apparent nemesis, Connor, is entirely undeveloped, but this serves the novel well. Every time he appears, he distracts our attention from the looming truth that Bobby is his only worthy enemy, and so when that realization comes it lands with a satisfying crunch. The scene in which Bobby recognizes his own destructive nature is one of the strongest and most confident in the novel, even as Bobby himself crumbles. This happens six chapters from the end, when the narration goes from simply engaging to addictive. The novel is the most enjoyable here, when Whitwam lets us draw conclusions from her characters’ actions, rather than telling us what she has already shown.
In many ways Whitwham’s novel resembles its protagonist, Bobby—handsome but scarred, forceful but deficient. The novel keeps the reader hooked with its energy, which does not wane even when Bobby’s is flagging. Though Whitwham’s characters tend to lack dimension, her style is fearless, sharp, and completely appropriate to her content. This allows the reader to appreciate the novel’s depth even while noticing its shallow places. And because Boxer Handsome ends on a note of redemption, we close it believing in Bobby, and by extension in Whitwham. This may be canny on her part, or lucky, but either way, we have every reason to hope that there will be a next novel as strong as this one, and—like Bobby—more aware of its strengths.