It’s the early 1990s, and Gemma cannot wait until her school formal. Her brother, Billy – a hair and make-up artist – has promised he’ll come back from New York to perform his ‘magic’ on her and two friends for the big night. But as the formal approaches, Gemma learns that her brother has been hit by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. His partner Saul has recently died of AIDS (without her being told), and Billy is returning home to Australia having contracted HIV.
In The Things We Promise,Australian author J.C. Burke delves into the intricacies of living with someone who has contracted HIV/AIDS, during the height of epidemic, developing an honest, truthful and at times very difficult novel that gives a view of the crisis that we rarely see.
Burke was inspired to write The Things we Promise after being astounded to discover that her two children - aged 20 and 22 at the time - knew very little about the HIV/AIDS epidemic. They weren’t aware of the cause, or impact of the disease, nor how it spread. They viewed it from a distance.
This is the reality of much of our discussions around HIV/AIDS today, with the epidemic being increasingly spoken about in the abstract. We talk about the numbers of people dead, the impact on the gay community and on the gay rights movements, and the political ramifications of the disease. Increasingly, we lose connection to how the disease hit the people who contracted it, as well as the impact on their families and friends.
It is in dealing with these often brutal realities that The Things We Promise has such value. Through Burke’s vibrant and resilient protagonist, Gemma, we get a picture of the disease from a perspective we rarely see.
Peppered with stark descriptions of the physical realities of HIV/AIDS, the novel describes how Gemma’s brother begins to make regular visits to the hospital, with Gemma and her mother spending their nights and weekends by his bedside. Gemma witnesses the pain and sickness facing those suffering in the AIDS ward: whether it is the throat thrush - called oropharyngeal candidiasis - that makes it difficult to eat, the spots and rashes associated with kaposi's sarcoma that appear on many patient’s skin, or the AIDs-related cancers, which, when they start to develop on patient’s brains, make them delirious and disconnected from the real world.
Burke also presents realistic, and often extremely difficult, depictions of the discrimination that face many HIV/AIDS victims and families. This starts with Gemma herself, who has a panic attack after drinking from the same glass as him shortly after his diagnosis. After confronting her own fears, Gemma faces a range of prejudice, from her best friend, Andrea, who no longer wants to have her hair and makeup done by Billy, to the clients of her mother (who is a dress maker), who take their business elsewhere over fears of contracting the disease from using the household toilet.
These small and honest moments make this book stand out, but unfortunately, they are often lost to Burke’s writing style. The language is often stilted, with the narration being too literal and descriptive. While Burke develops realistic and honest moments, they get lost in a writing style that does not allow us to use our imagination, or even evoke our emotions to deal with them. Burke too often tells us what Gemma is feeling, and in turn what we should feel ourselves, taking away some of our own emotional connection.
Despite this, the strength of Burke’s characters and the story she has developed still manages to shine through. Burke refuses to sanitise the reality that people faced in these times, making this a tough book, but one filled with brutal honesty. The Things We Promise takes a unique angle to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, giving us a truthful, emotional and well-researched story that deserves to be read.