Ely Percy is a neurodivergent, queer, agender and working-class Scottish fiction writer and memoirist. Their first novel, Vicky Romeo Plus Joolz, is a humorous queer romance set in early 21st-century Glasgow. Reviewed by Glasgow-based writer Susan McKinstery.
Vicky Romeo Plus Joolz is by turns a touching emotional account and a knowing camp look at the LGBTQIA+ community. Ely Percy sets their debut novel in the burgeoning and ever-evolving Glasgow gay scene of 2001. Our guide through tumultuous relationships in a city whose queer culture is still finding its place amidst shifting understandings of identity and belonging is Vicky Mann, or – as she prefers to self-title – ‘Vicky Romeo’.
A sardonically witty 21-year-old with enough bravado and sass to appear untouchable, Vicky is a butch and brash womaniser. She commands the attention and respect of friends and lovers alike. Vicky knows what and who she wants and she knows how to get them – that is, until Julie Turner aka ‘Joolz’ comes bounding onto the scene and into Vicky’s world. What follows is an eight-week snapshot of our heroine’s life and times.
Through strongly-defined characters, Percy reminds us what it’s like to be 21 and have life figured out, until you don’t. As Vicky is drawn to Joolz, in the uniquely passionate and breathless way that early love affairs tend to capture us, we’re taken back to a time when you found your people without the public gaze of social media. Percy wonderfully evokes an era of clandestine meetings in gay chat rooms and alchopop-fuelled nights in the bars and clubs that were places of safety to those newly ‘out’ and looking for community. For Vicky, it’s a time where the facades she cultivates – streetwise heartbreaker and, comically, 1950s gangster’s moll – are gradually eroded by the tender feelings Joolz evokes.
Percy vividly portrays this kind of turmoil, the tussle between who we’re expected to be and the reality of who we discover we are when given space to define ourselves. Via vibrant portraits of Vicky, Joolz and their network of friends, the book effectively demonstrates the intensity of relationships and rivalries that form among those pushed to the margins because of their sexuality and gender. The author creates searingly-real portraits of young people who’ve barely left their childhood classroom, but are immediately expected to roll with the (sometimes literal) punches like adults.
Percy’s illumination of the lives and interactions of working-class LGBTQIA+ people, perhaps a reflection of their own experiences, is realistic and thoughtfully handled. As the spaces Vicky and her friends call home undergo gentrification and assimilation into the middle classes (which continues apace in Glasgow’s queer community today), Percy demonstrates how our community can turn from a place of togetherness to one of exclusion and division.
Through their cast of misfit characters, the author deftly takes on weighty themes. As our protagonists confront their prejudices against those who don’t fit binary definitions of gender and sexuality, we’re reminded of a recent past and sadly re-emerging present, where the B and the T in LGBT are excluded and ridiculed. In these uncomfortable scenes where bigoted and harmful language is casually tossed around, Percy reveals not only how far we’ve come as a community, but also that the idea of linear progress can be an illusion. Looking to the past reminds us how we must be willing to continue to learn from and seek to understand each other. If we don’t, Scotland will be challenging the same harmful behaviour in another 20 years.
Yet the true success of Vicky Romeo Plus Joolz lies in its warmth and humour. This book is ideal for young queer people, or for those of us nostalgic for that time when anything was possible yet every heartache was world-ending. Percy frames being part of ‘the scene’ as both protective and claustrophobic, with an ex or a rival around every corner. The reader walks side by side with Vicky as she gets the girl and loses the girl many times over, searches for ways to fit in and stand out, and holds ambitions for acting stardom while never letting her head dwell too long in the clouds.
Vicky Romeo Plus Joolz is a novel about finding the freedom and language to define yourself – before the world steps in with its labels and boxes.
Get your copy of Vicky Romeo Plus Joolz from Knight Errant Press, or at an independent bookshop near you.
Susan McKinstery bio (audio):
Sandra Alland is guest editor at DAO from 25th March to 26th April. Check out all San’s commissioned pieces on their Project page. Audio versions of all pieces can be found on San’s dedicated SoundCloud channel.