Gunnar Tryggvason is entering Grade 12 at his rural Alberta high school. He’s a laid-back wrestler who loves his farm and family. He knows he’s gay but is determined to keep it a secret because he worries about facing homophobia at school and from the wrestling team. But a new gay student, Aidan, makes Gunnar question his resolve.
Superficially, Under the Radar doesn’t offer a lot that’s new: it’s another YA coming-out story of a white, cisgender gay guy. But despite a lack of novelty, Under the Radar has a quiet charm. Gunnar’s character development, including learning he is interested in cooking and growing into his fashion style, is subtle and moving. The character’s quest is just as much for the cultural capital that would allow him to feel part of the gay community as it is about finding the courage to come out. The actual coming-out moment in the novel is anticlimactic.
A subplot involving the one friend whose initial reaction to Gunnar’s sexuality is homophobic gets tied up quickly and too tidily. However, the understated focus on Gunnar’s Icelandic heritage – rare for stories about white Canadian settlers – is very welcome and the slow-burn romance between Gunnar and Aidan is sweet and wholesome.
Unfortunately, this innocent tone contrasts jarringly with a violent homophobic assault early in the novel. The trauma of what happens is not taken seriously enough and the plot thread, although not dropped, is insufficiently explored.
Believability is also stretched at times. The first-person viewpoint is slippery: Gunnar gives detailed and precise descriptions of outfits that are clearly meant for readers unfamiliar with fashion and ring false in his voice. And for an environment that is supposedly homophobic, there seem to be out gay men everywhere: Gunnar’s older neighbours, a few classmates, young men in a Medicine Hat café, a waiter at a restaurant in Calgary, and a college student Gunnar meets at a farm-and-ranch exhibit.
Considering its faults, Under the Radar is not exactly an essential addition to the Canadian LGBTQ2S+ YA literary landscape. But with its sweetness and charm, it’s not an unwelcome one, either.