The things we promise by J. C. Burke
Allen and Unwin, 2017. ISBN 9781760290405
(Age: 13+) Highly recommended. AIDS, Australian history, 1990's, Prejudice. The focus of Gemma's life in year eleven is the formal at the end of the year. She and her friends, Linda and Andrea talk about it incessantly, Gemma relying on her brother's return to do their hair and make up. He is a stylist in New York, where he has lived for five years with his boyfriend, Saul.
But tensions are mounting in her household. Mum is distraught when Billy's first boyfriend, Matt dies, she is evasive when Gemma talks about her brother's return, and Gemma is cross when the swatches for the material for her dress are sent by Billy's friend, Claude.
It is the early 1990's and the setting is recreated by Burke with absolute clarity. No one could be unaware of the climate in Australia when AIDS first became known. Community attitudes are clearly delineated, posters of male-female love appear, accepting no other possibility, gay men are called a range of offensive names, some like Gemma's father simply leave the family, avoiding the issue altogether.
Gemma finds a photo of Saul and Billy at a party in New York, in her mother's drawer. Billy has used his talents to make Saul look like a zebra, and the line on the back alludes to something being well covered. The reader is alerted, and eventually Gemma finds that Saul has AIDS.
A fascinating set of decisions need to be made as she gets on with her life. Who to tell? She is hesitant to tell her best friend, Andrea because of her homophobic attitudes, and with her knowledge, other people's ignorances seem to stand out. Through her growing knowledge of the disease, the reader is also given information with which they can judge the reactions of the school and the community in which Gemma lives. In following Billy's decline and visits to the hospital, Gemma is in no doubt about the seriousness of the illness, and the reader is privy to the range of prejudices and reactions of other people when confronted by the disease. In the background, Gemma is becoming closer to Ralph, a boy she likes and his involvement with her lands him in some trouble. The year rolls to an end and the formal is close at hand but other more important events take hold of the family and their friends.
For information about AIDS in Australia today, an article about the decline in the number of HIV/AIDS cases. HIV/AIDS is no longer a death sentence and the number of deaths is insignificant, whereas in the 1990's about 1000 people died each year.
This is a beautifully told gripping story with some hard issues to follow. Burke makes the times ring with clarity.