Jude Tresswell’s Polyamory on Trial presents an intriguing blend of modern themes. In a small town in Northern England, a committed foursome of gay men uncovers a human trafficking operation that preys on Syrian refugees. The men face questions of moral obligation while figuring out how to live together as a quad.
I’d call Tresswell’s novel a poly romance (or M/M/M/M) with mystery/crime elements. Regarding those elements, a compelling hook is the four guys tackle the investigation together, contributing in fairly equal ways. It’s a story that aims to illuminate two social issues that are prone to misunderstanding and stereotyping.
The four men are likeable and authentic fellows: Mike, a retired policeman; Phil, a trauma physician specializing in anal reconstruction; Raith, an artist, reformed from a criminal past; and Ross, another artist. At the start of the story, they’ve just completed renovations to create a bigger house where they can live together, and as the narrative moves around from their points-of-view, they make clear their relationship is based on more than sex.
That first-person story-telling is effective in creating a convincing portrait of four men in love. Their quad is something they fell into as two gay couples who struck up a friendship: Mike and Ross and Phil and Raith. They’re each emotionally committed to one another and committed to the sum of them being greater than their parts. But as one might expect, there are subtle distinctions in how they share affection and interact sexually.
They don’t share one bed. The original couples do. Mike, Phil and Raith are physically intimate, and Ross chooses to only have sex with Mike. They’re mainly intimate as pairs, not a threesome, and never a foursome because of Ross. Mike tells most of their story, and he expounds on how sex is different for him with each of his mates: exhilarating and experimental with Raith, and more loving and sensuous with Ross for instance. But most of their time is spent sharing the daily tasks of keeping up a household, and they want the world to know they’re ‘regular’ guys.
The title of the book suggests a struggle to legitimize their relationship in the outside world, but the “trial” takes place more so in the men’s heads. They worry about the consequences of coming out as a quad, such as damaging Phil’s career. For practical purposes, they wish their relationship could be legally recognized, and they bargain to have two marriages, which in some ways invalidates and threatens their foursome. They bemoan the prejudices of others, but as products of their culturally conservative community, they frequently point out they’re not the sort to shove their sex life down others’ throats and seem to live their quad unbeknownst to anyone around them.
One criticism with that depiction, which comes through long passages of internal rumination and dialogue among the four, is that we don’t see the external conflict. Some interaction with family, friends and neighbors would have helped round out what it’s like to be a quad in their world.
The mystery storyline emerges when a Syrian teenager with anal trauma shows up at the hospital where Phil works. His patient Khaled can’t communicate what happened to him, though Phil suspects he was raped. Through Mike’s contacts in law enforcement, the quad tracks down an abandoned house that appears to be a holding place for refugees being trafficked for sexual exploitation.
The men’s call to action proceeds with an attempt to help Khaled establish himself safely in the country. They’re stand-up guys, and with Mike’s background, they’re soon on the trail of a refugee smuggling operation from Romania to the UK and mired in the complexity of immigration laws.
Tresswell rightfully does not steer away from the heartbreaking and violent realities faced by victims of trafficking, and she resists easy solutions. A pitfall of taking the subject matter almost entirely from the foursome’s point-of-view –there are brief passages from the perspectives of two Syrian men – is the refugee characters lack dimension, which I’m sure was not the author’s intention based on the care she takes to humanize their plight. But considering they’re the ones who have the most at stake in finding safety, it would have uplifted their humanity even more to hear their voices.
A well-intentioned contemporary tale, Polyamory on Trial is a good read for folks interested in the subjects of poly lifestyles and the Syrian refugee crisis.
Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters