Juno Loves Legs by Karl Geary

In this bittersweet coming-of-age story, scrappy childhood friends from Dublin’s outskirts grow tenuously into young adults with only one another for support.

Juno Loves Legs is a sensitive, scarred coming-of-age story by Karl Geary (Montpelier Parade) set in a troubled housing estate and nearby Dublin in the 1980s. Amid poverty, a harsh and judgmental Catholicism, family dysfunction and personal torment, preteens Juno and Seán form an unlikely but sturdy friendship that will carry them through trauma and violence and–if they’re lucky–into a wider, freer life.

Juno’s harried mother takes in sewing alterations for the neighbors, who look down on her family’s poverty and cheat her out of her meager pay. Her father drinks his days away. “Mam shouted up at him; he shouted down at her. They were two mouths and I was their ear.” Her older sister is absent following her own particularly awful childhood. Catholic school is a trial for a girl as headstrong and underprivileged as Juno. “We were beaten. A sour-smelling odour emerged from Father before he was done. And even Sister’s hands were crimson.” Then she meets Seán, who is shockingly clean but whose home life is equally, if differently, disturbed. For his awkward height she dubs him Legs, and they form an alliance, until an extraordinary act of violence tears everything apart. Years later in Dublin, with new troubles, the young adult versions of these childhood friends attempt a beautiful, possibly doomed, second start.

Juno’s first-person voice is angry, indignant, righteous, both jaded and pitifully innocent: at 12 she sets out to save the family by calling in the small debts owed her mother by their neighbors, but in her temper botches the job. She blusters to hide her vulnerability, where Legs leaves his tender side open and allows the blows to land. Not only the world at large–strangers, predatory adults, a grimly punishing Catholic church, the big city–but their own families are hopelessly cruel to these misfit children: Juno for her poverty, Legs for his sexuality. (A kind librarian provides an appealing single point of light.) They are stronger together, and their bond is artless, crude and true. This is in part a story about the families we build for ourselves: an ode to friendship in which the friends may still not survive. Geary’s young protagonists will face shocking pains before the ending, which glimmers with a touch of hope.

Juno Loves Legs is tender and heartbreaking. Young friendship takes on all the world’s challenges–love, art, family, the simple and overwhelming task of survival–with tragic, poignant results. Readers will find Juno’s bravado and Legs’s persistent sweetness unforgettable.

This review originally ran in the March 23, 2023 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 7 small debts.

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