This is either the story of the sexual awakening of a heterosexual teenager, or the story of the sexual abuse of a teenage boy. You will have to make that decision. There is no doubt that he is willing, but there is a question about whether or not Vera should have taken advantage of his willingness in this way. There is also a question about whether or not any harm is done. Clearly, he cannot get pregnant so there is not the risk of becoming a teenage mother or having to face a termination. Our society has less concern about psychological damage, even when it considers that such damage can be done. And let us be honest, the usual response is that “he’s got lead in his pencil” or something similar to that. You may or may not think that any damage has been done.
We are not told Sonny’s age. All we know is that he is old enough to consider leaving school to start an apprenticeship, but that he is not old enough to go into a shop to buy a bottle of wine. Vera does that for him. So he may not be underage, but Vera is still considerably older than him, and whether or not she is exploiting him is an open question. Vera has her own issues to consider, and is clearly facing up to her own situation with great difficulty. When you find out her situation, you may or may not consider it to be an explanation of her behaviour. You may or may not consider that it justifies what she does.
Karl Geary is too good a writer to force his moral judgements onto his readers. He lets the issue arise through his characters, through Sonny’s mother who wonders why Vera is taking an interest in her son. through Sharon, supposedly Sonny’s girlfriend, who decides that he will come to nothing, through Vera herself, who thinks that Sonny will come to hate her. And Sonny is no paragon of virtue. He steals. He fights. He is essentially a working class boy, who sees no future for himself that he can deliver. The key moment here is when he tells the school counsellor that he wants to be a painter and she assumes that he means a decorator, not an artist. And when the word “artist” is raised in the conversation, he abandons all hope of ever becoming one.
This is essentially a sad tale, about the loss of aspiration and the hopelessness of life for so many people. The writing is spare, beautiful, considered. There is no careless choice of words. Each sentence has been carefully constructed with poetic thought. This story is a thing of beauty and a joy forever.
You will have to decide what Geary is trying to tell you. You will have to make your own judgements about both Sonny and Vera. You will have to decide whether this is a book about sexual awakening, sexual abuse or possibly both. This is a book that will make you think, and you will have to decide how to react. You will even have to decide whether or not you should cast the first stone.