The Things We Promise by J C Burke
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Released: March 22nd 2017 (in Australia)
Read: 29 December 2016
I am going to spend some time over the next few weeks, transferring (and extending) some of the reviews I wrote for Riverbend Standing Orders through 2017. It’s a terrific service (#biased), and if you are in a school, you might want to consider subscribing to receive some awesome texts. My reviews are primarily directed at adults who hand out books to teens, so they may be slightly spoiler-y, and often provide little plot summary.
J C Burke has written a raw yet restrained story about grief and life. It’s clear she has personal memories of the time about which she writes, and her affection for her characters shines through.
Protagonist, Gemma’s narrative voice keeps the story moving forward amid sadness and nostalgia. Burke’s style is chatty and breezy, but her subject matter is dark. The 1990’s don’t seem all that long ago (to me), and teenagers today have their own understanding of the mistrust and misinformation spread about the AIDS epidemic. But while this is an intimate portrayal of one young man’s situation, it could be any one of our friends or family members. The inclusion of stories of other men broadens the scope beyond Billy’s tragedy.
There are other things going on in Gemma’s life, and Burke deals with them all thoughtfully, while never diverting the attention away from what is her primary motive– to highlight the injustice faced by people with AIDS, and to mourn the loss and waste of young lives. Billy and Gemma’s mother represent liberal and supportive voices quietly suffocated by the fear and judgement so prevalent at the time. By the end, Gemma is reconciling her grief, with Burke carefully leaving her in a happy place, which provides a satisfying resolution for readers. This mature book will be suited to senior students who enjoy serious books with gritty realism and not necessarily happy endings. There is a hint of romance, and realistic friendship drama, but most importantly, there are positive and sensitive representations of what young gay men faced, and how they dealt with the isolation with dignity and courage.
I found The Things We Promise moving and profound.