The Boston Castrato

Written by Colin W. Sargent
Review by Maggi de Rozario

At the turn of the 20th century in Naples, the Catholic Church is trying to remove some of its older, darker habits, but one bishop still clings to tradition and castrates Raffi, a street urchin with a beautiful voice. Hastily covering the scandal, the church transports Raffi to America, where he is forbidden to sing and trains as a hotel concierge. Transported into the world of the literary glitterati of 1920s Boston and with the aid of a blind friend, Victor, Raffi makes his way through life.

In this new and vibrant but often harsh world, Raffi meets a host of characters, both famous and infamous, many of them misfits struggling to be accepted. Refusing to be defined by his secret, Raffi infiltrates the lives of the poet Amy Lowell and her friends and hangers on and becomes enmeshed in this strange, rich and sometimes criminal world.

Beautifully written, by turns poignant, sad and funny, this novel explores many themes, particularly those of prejudice and marginalisation. The transgender issues particularly are topical today. As a reader I wished I had better knowledge of the literary and political issues of the time and, indeed American readers might find this easier. Mixing fact and fiction, Raffi’s search for love and acceptance is both heroic and touching. His character is strong and defies pity and the ending of the book is genuinely uplifting. Colin Sargent’s use of language betrays the fact that he is also a poet, and descriptions are both memorable and entertaining. An enjoyable read, but I found that the unusual small font of this edition – Goudy Modern – made concentration a little difficult; it might be easier on an e-reader.