Monday, July 24, 2017

[Review] The Things We Promise by J.C. Burke

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Publication (dd/mm/yyyy)22/02/2017
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Pages: 369
Source: Library
Violence | Sexual Content | Profanity

Book Tunes
♪ Boy George - Il Adore ♪
♪ U2 - One ♪

My Rating
My thoughts

I'm at a loss for words. I have literally just been typing words and erasing them, scratching my head as to what the heck I'm actually going to write. I didn't quite know what I was getting myself into when I picked this book up - all I knew was that it was set in 1990 and that was pretty cool. As I delved deeper in the story I grew more and more invested in its characters, and while I do think that it was a bit slow-going at times and some readers may be offended by the language used, I have to applaud the author for taking all the risks that she did because this story was a difficult one to tell, and painfully accurate as far as I'm concerned. And for that reason alone I had to bump this book up to a respectable 4 stars.

The Things We Promise follows Gemma Longrigg, an ordinary teenage girl living in Sydney, Australia in 1990, whose biggest worries are what she's going to wear to the upcoming Year 11 formal, and whether her crush since Year 7, Ralph, would ever fall for her, too. Her brother, Billy, who lives in NYC with his partner Saul, has promised Gemma that he will do her hair and makeup for the formal, even though it's months and months away, and in that amount of time anything can happen. Especially in the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

I loved the setting. How often do we get to read a book set in the 1990s? J.C. Burke has obviously done lots of research (and reminiscing) - this book is packed with heaps of references! I didn't know a lot of them, but I definitely appreciated that they were included, lending to a more authentic voice. However, this could have been set in pretty much any other city in Australia and I don't think it would have made much of a difference.

I can imagine it might have been a bit tricky to have written a YA book about a period that actual teenagers would know absolutely nothing about. It can make it a bit difficult for them to relate to the story, the true terror of the reality of it all, and result in some disconnect from the characters, which seems to have been the case as I was skimming through a few other reviews on Goodreads. What readers need to acknowledge and appreciate is that people have evolved since back then, we are generally less bigoted and prejudiced and homophobic, and this book helped to give me a reality check: this is what it was like back then.

The Things We Promise is written in Gemma's perspective, and we follow the events that unfold as she experiences and perceives them. I found her voice to be well established, unique and believable. While I didn't love her, largely because I found her to be kind of flat and uninteresting in general, I found myself sympathising with her whole situation, it is just so terrible and it must be confusing to have lots of different things happening in your life all at once. She is fixated on the upcoming formal for a large portion of the narrative, which got a bit tiresome after a while, but I mean, that's how some teenagers get. I also liked how loyal she was to her family, even though she got whiny and overreacted a lot.

This book is a highly character-driven story. We get a whole cast of characters, each with contrasting personalities and lives of their own:
  • Her mum is described as "crazy", "schizo", and a few other words by Gemma, which is pretty insensitive and ignorant (see: teenage angst) considering the enormous weight of all her burdens. I thought she was trying her best, I really felt for her.
  • Gemma's best friend Andrea was so ignorant of HIV/AIDS and so scared, but apparently that's what people were like back then: everyone was scared of catching it and dying. I also didn't appreciate her catty attitude, not to mention how she treats Gemma like a sidekick. As a friend she kind of sucked, but I could relate to that feeling of wanting to hold onto a friend because it's familiar and you have history.
  • Louise was awesome, I just wish that we got more of an idea what her whole backstory and life before was like. She was one of the "prissy girls" until she was outed after she had a go with one of the jerkass guys at school, or so the rumours say. She was so understanding and supportive of Gemma and she became the friend that she could actually talk to about everything. I like how their friendship progressed, it was lovely. :)
  • The neighbours living above the Longriggs, Mr and Mrs C. They were the absolute best! <3 If I had neighbours like these two I would never move out!

Then there was Billy and Saul, I loved the both of them! <3 Their relationship seemed so pure and true, I think it made what happens all the more devastating. They also treated Gemma with lots of respect, and really seemed to care for her. It's always nice to see positive relationships between siblings in YA!

And then there was Ralph. Gemma's crush. It was really sweet to see the progression of their relationship and its ups and downs, though I grew frustrated at times when they faltered and struggled due to misspoken words and miscommunication. I liked that Ralph was just a good guy, no hidden agenda, no mysterious, brooding-ness or dangerous secrets or back-story. He was solid, if a little boring.

Ultimately I was kept interested by all the HIV/AIDS aspects, the associated diseases and hospital stays, all the treatments, all the health ads and the like! I had no idea what it was like back then, and Burke makes you really feel it. I think that was her most pressing need in writing this book - to share with teenagers and young readers the terrifying and tragic impacts of HIV/AIDS. Death seemed to pervade the air and suffocate the families and loved ones of the affected. In fact, she even said as much, she partly wrote this book so that her grown-up kids (who are like my age!) might know what it was like back then, so that this time in history won't be forgotten. So that all those lives lost will not be forgotten in vain. While I did not cry, this was a difficult book to read. Definitely not for the faint of heart.


First lines:

"There are two things you need to know about me. The first is that I remember life by what I was wearing. The second is that I think too much.
"'Isn't love just love? Why does it matter who it's between? It's like saying one love is better than another.' (71)

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