By Jonathan Gillis
We Are Lost and Found by Helene Dunbar is a hauntingly beautiful coming of age story. Set during the 1980s amidst the AIDS crisis in New York City, the story focuses on the life of young gay teenage boy and his friends trying to grow and find themselves. The main character Michael struggles with living in his friends’ shadow and lives in fear of his home life imploding if he is true to who he is.
Dunbar extensively explores what it feels like as a teenager to compare yourself and consistently feel incompetent to your seemingly more successful friends. The feeling of loving someone but being so jealous of not only their accomplishments but of their being is uniquely explored, at least in my reading experience, throughout the story as Michael struggles with his sense of self compared to his David Bowie type best friend James. James has talent, looks and the demeanor that Michael wants and as the story Michael both grows into to be comfortable in his own skin and learns that James is more than just the Ziggy Stardust exterior.
The experimental writing style excludes quotation marks from the dialogue and the story is told in a more vignette style rather than chapters. The exclusion of dialogue at its worst makes it confusing as whether the written words are dialogue or inner monologue as the story is also told in first person, but at its best it immerses the reader into Michael’s singular perspective of viewing the world merging his thoughts and feelings with the events around him. The vignette style story breaks almost divide the plot into more of an act structure and makes the plot feel more connected and removes the creative manipulation of ending chapters with cliff-hangers which is one of my literature pet peeves.The experience is comparative to viewing a movie or miniseries versus a typical cable tv series with 20 something episodes. Both methods of storytelling have their pros and cons but at the end of the day it’s up to the readers’ personal preference.
The immediate supporting characters like James and Becky feel real and genuine, fully flushed out people, but some characters fail to feel as real and genuine which is a disappointment as many are incredibly interesting at surface level, such as Michael love interest Gabriel who simply plays the role of “love interest”, Michael’s brother Conner that doesn’t appear in person a lot in the story but is referenced quite frequently and Becky’s boyfriend that acts as a neighborhood vigilante/ watchman which is never delved into as a thing that is happening seemingly parallel to the events of the plot playing out. Many of these can be hand waved away as the reader only understands these characters as well as Michael himself understands them, but nonetheless some wasted potential for interesting characters.
On a whole this coming of age story was a wonderful read cover to cover. The unique prose, creative methods of storytelling and themes of self actualization, love, fear, and hope make this a fine addition to any To Be Read list.
“We’re fine. I say loudly and more confidently than I feel. Just walking like you belong here. And that’s what we do. Because we belong to the city and the city belongs to us”