Thursday 18 May 2017

The Things We Promise

The Things We Promise by J.C. Burke (Allen and Unwin)
PB RRP $19.99  ISBN 9781760290405

Reviewed by Daniela Andrews

‘Mum reckoned I was born a pessimist. “Polly Pessimistic” she called me … But it’s true, I can feel it. Sometimes I sense it early. Sometimes it’s not till it’s almost on top of me.’

The school formal is months away but Gemma and her best friend, Andrea, are super excited. Gemma’s talented and semi-famous brother, Billy, has promised he’ll come home from New York to do their hair and make-up. The girls can’t wait … they’re choosing hairstyles, arguing over dress lengths, and counting down the weeks. Gemma is hoping to get the attention of the boy she likes, Ralph.

Enter Polly Pessimistic. Gemma can’t help feeling that something is wrong at home. Her mother won’t admit that she’s stressed out about something … and she flips out when Gemma wants to ring Billy. There’s that niggling comment made by Vanessa, a girl at her school who knows Billy via her modelling work. (What does Vanessa know about Billy’s personal life that she doesn’t?) Then she discovers the death notice for Matt Leong, Billy’s old boyfriend, who died at the age of 25 from ‘a short illness’ … and watches, in disbelief, as her mother crumbles at the news.

In the early 1990s, teenagers wore midriff tops. They watched ‘Video Hits’ and ‘Degrassi High’. They knew who Bob Hawke was. They made phone calls from public phone boxes. And they probably heard the terms ‘AIDS’ and ‘HIV’ a lot. Award-winning writer, J.C. Burke, aptly set her novel in this era to raise awareness of AIDS and the fears, attitudes and ignorance of people during that time. Gemma perfectly summarises the author’s intent when she says, of AIDS: ‘… It’s the way it spreads everywhere. It’s like it’s infected my life. It’s infected me, the way I see people, the way I see the world.’

This stark, powerful novel for young adults is beautifully written and will appeal to a broad range of readers, including adults who grew up in the 80s and 90s. The author, an oncology nurse, writes insightfully about hospital procedures, infection control and home management. The novel will deeply resonate with teenage readers who know what it’s like to preserve a ‘normal’ school life while watching a loved one battle a terminal illness at home.

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