Juno Loves Legs: A Novel
- By Karl Geary
- 304 pp.
- Reviewed by Mike Maggio
- May 19, 2023
Young Dublin outcasts seek a brighter future in this beguiling tale.
Sometimes, a novel comes along that touches you like no other. It might be the storyline that tears at your emotions, or perhaps the idiosyncratic characters who capture your heart. If you’re really lucky, the prose itself may flow in a way that’s so immersive, you hardly notice you’re reading because you’ve been fully transported into its fictional world. Karl Geary’s Juno Loves Legs does all of this and more.
It’s a coming-of-age story, told through the eyes of Juno, about two young people who live in the tenements (or “estates”) of Dublin in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood where folks struggle to survive. As the novel opens, Juno is 12 and living with a mother who sews to make ends meet (though she often doesn’t get paid) and a father who does little except drink and live on the dole. Juno attends Catholic school, typical for Dubliners, where the nuns and priests use humiliation and physical punishment to discipline their charges, punishment that has no effect on the schoolyard bullies who taunt Juno and another equally beleaguered student, Seán.
Not one to be pushed around, Juno continually gets into fights to defend herself, and when her tormentors start to pick on Seán — whom she nicknames Legs — she stands up for him. Unsurprisingly, given that they’re both shunned by classmates, the two become best friends.
That all changes one day when Legs, struggling to come to terms with his homosexuality, is harassed by the parish priest because of his sexual inclinations. Legs, who by this time has endured enough abuse, takes a lighter to the cleric and sets him on fire. After Juno is coerced by the nuns into betraying him, Legs is hauled off to prison. It is this critical event which, ironically, seals their bond, for they are both now haunted by guilt, Juno over her betrayal of her friend, and Legs over his act of vengeance:
“And still each evening, the [prison] chaplain would come to him; the chaplain believed that burning Father was an accident and Legs felt free to tell almost all of himself. Season by dense season, they talked, until Legs, upset one night, embraced the chaplain, and felt safe and encouraged enough to hold that embrace, and hold and hold and hold, until the older man understood something of Legs’ love.
“In truth, that was not his word, not love. He never said that word. But I saw his face and the ways he didn’t say love. The way his body sank into that unrequited place. That was what Legs showed in the game where he showed me his and I showed him mine and we told each other our stories.”
While Legs is in jail, Juno’s mam is killed in a car accident, and her sister Derry, who’d been ostracized from the family, moves back home with her kids to care for her widowed father. This displaces Juno and causes her to run away. She eventually becomes homeless, only to be rescued several years later by the now-free Legs.
Juno moves in with Legs, who lives in his deceased grandmother’s flat, from which he is about to be evicted. It’s at this point we learn about the guilt and disappointment that have shaped both of them. As difficult as it all is, it’s these very experiences that have prepared Juno and Legs to face their futures. They may be outcasts — in a book about outcasts — but their hopes and dreams drive them.
Juno loves to read, and she spends much of her time in the library, where Missus H, the librarian, acts as a sort of surrogate mother. The Singer sewing machine her mam was forced to pawn before her untimely death becomes a symbol that beckons Juno toward a future of possibilities. Legs, meanwhile, has a flair for drawing, and although an exhibit of his work — arranged by an unscrupulous individual — never comes to fruition, we’re led to believe his talent might one day amount to something tangible.
Juno Loves Legs will make your heart ache as you turn each page and wonder if the characters will ever become whole. It’s a story that grabs you from the beginning and keeps you cheering for two kids trapped by circumstance yet determined to live the lives they desire. I offer wholehearted applause to Karl Geary for crafting such a touching and absorbing novel.
Mike Maggio’s forthcoming novel, Woman in the Abbey, a gothic tale of love and betrayal, will be released by Vine Leaves Press in 2025.