In the acknowledgments section of Sassafras Lowrey's latest novel Lost Boi, ze starts right off by thanking J.M. Barrie, creator of beloved literary bad boy Peter Pan. "Queering [Barrie's] work has been a tremendous honour and a great deal of fun," ze writes. (Lowrey uses the pronouns ze and hir.) Perhaps this is what is most compelling about this revamped version of the classic tale of the boy who wouldn't grow up; in reading it you can actually feel how much Lowrey immensely enjoyed writing it. In fact, Lost Boi is the kind of novel that reminds us exactly why we love literature, how it can push boundaries and break open traditions, all while it amuses and excites both reader and author.
This subversive and cheeky take on the classic children's story arrives more than 100 years after Barrie first envisioned Peter Pan in his 1902 adult novel, The Little White Bird. Pan has seen many incarnations since – from an elfish boy clad in green in Disney's 1953 animated film to Robin Williams's bumbling grown-up version in Steven Spielberg's epic 1991 adaptation, Hook. Lowrey's rewrite is certainly among the more inventive, narrated by Pan's best boi, Tootles, a street kid plucked from a diner and destitution and brought into the kinky, queer, gender-fluid world of a delightfully reimagined Neverland. Pan's pack of bois have "fallen out of their prams" – orphans, runaways and ne'er-do-wells, rejected by their families and loyal only to Pan, each pledging to never join the world outside that has excluded them. Their unwavering devotion to Pan and his make-believe way of life is signalled by the locked leather cuffs they wear, an obvious nod to the consensual servitude of BDSM culture.
The clan lives communally, dumpster-diving, stealing to survive and sleeping in hammocks in a run-down warehouse squat on the edge of town. In creating their glittering and gritty world, Lowrey deftly mixes fairy-tale magic with a rough-edged, punk aesthetic – red-headed Pan is tattooed and black-leather booted, the bois "battle" with leather pirates, the mermaids wear tattered fishnets and host play parties, filthy pigeons deliver their important messages and the source material's infamous crocodile becomes a drug delivered by a green-haired temptress named Gator. Pan's relationship with his mortal enemy Hook is redefined as something both tender and antagonistic, the pair more like lovers as each pushes for an impossible dominance over the other.
When Pan discovers beautiful "grrrl" Wendi at an open-mike night he is enthralled, and entices her to leave the Darling's group home in the middle of the night to become a mommy to his crew. He proposes his arrangement with a pawnshop ring, Wendi's powerful domestic role signified by the knot in her apron strings and her thrift-store pumps. There are certainly growing pains upon her arrival, but soon the boisterous and messy gang fall deeply in love with her doting maternal care and affection. Her dynamic with Pan solidifies them as a family, and though the bois pledge, like Pan, never to grow up, most relish the idea of playing house and the stability and comfort that fantasy brings. They tidy away their strap-on dildos and sit down to a home-cooked meal, Pan's strict protocols occasionally disrupted by her nurturing force.
Lowrey's prose is actually reminiscent of Heather O'Neill's in books such as The Girl Who Was Saturday Night and Lullabies for Little Criminals, most notably in the way ze infuses the urban landscape with a degree of delicate enchantment. Lost Boi is certainly more explicit with the fantasy, but still adheres to the harsh realities of poverty and the experiences of young people who are marginalized and abandoned. The reader is constantly asked to straddle the divide between the imaginary and the physical world, making the former more believable because of how it is infused in the latter. The way Lowrey uses a BDSM framework to structure Pan's universe is also fascinating, investigating how consensual servitude can be empowering and soothing for those who feel lost and rejected by the status quo.
"We've built our own family, chosen one another, given oaths in blood to each other," says Tootles. "We belong to each other now. Those bad people we were born to can't hurt us now."
As we come off the tail end of our Fifty Shades of Grey hysteria, Lost Boi is the perfect antidote, putting literary BDSM back into the realm of quality. The book's smuttier elements are all bound up in Lowrey's signature magic, where bondage is akin to flying and kinky sex is a glorious, courageous fight. In true fairy-tale form, Lost Boi also teaches its (adult) readers a multitude of important life lessons; that we should be free to define our relationships the way we choose, that it is possible to respect and even love our enemies, and that the freedom and hope of youth don't need to be lost as we creep into adulthood.
To say that Lost Boi is loads of fun is not meant to in any way take away from the book's meaning and Lowrey's talent. While masterfully rebuilding a well-worn classic into a dazzling, entertaining romp, the author's skill makes the project look effortless.