Rufi Thorpe has made a name for herself as a heavyweight in the literary world with her incisive, morally complex coming-of-age stories. Her debut novel, The Girls From Corona del Mar, was long-listed for several major literary prizes in 2014, and her follow-up, Dear Fang, With Love, was published to wide acclaim two years later. Now Thorpe comes back swinging with her best novel yet, a darkly comedic and tragic tale of a friendship between two outsiders.
Set in sunny Southern California, The Knockout Queen is narrated by Michael, a closeted gay teen sent to live with his aunt after his mother is sentenced to prison for stabbing Michael’s father following one of the father’s violent outbursts. With long hair, a nose piercing and a penchant for eyeliner, Michael doesn’t fit neatly into the glossy world of his suburban North Shore neighborhood. Then again, neither does his next-door neighbor, Bunny, infamous for her dead mother and her extremely tall height.
Thrown together by proximity and a shared sense of alienation, Michael and Bunny forge a fierce friendship and navigate their early high school years as an inseparable duo. Bonded by a mutual love of drag queens and a keen understanding of what it means to be rejected and relegated to the fringes, the two are ferociously protective of each other, and their love for one another is unconditional—or so Michael thinks, until a shocking act of violence triggers a devastating sequence of events that tests the limits of their friendship and changes the trajectory of their lives.
From the very start, the story is infused with an unsettling sense of menace, which Thorpe skillfully wields to pierce through the veneer of her shiny California setting to honestly examine weighty topics such as friendship, sexuality, identity and belonging. Michael tends to see things in black and white, but the canvas of Thorpe’s novel is textured with shades of gray, its world morally ambiguous.
With charismatic characters and a surprising and devastating storyline, The Knockout Queen is a moody and mordantly funny contemplation of the rigors of growing up that will leave readers reeling.