Sunday, February 18, 2007

Holding The Man, by Tim Conigrave

This book will no doubt remain a perennial in Australian literature. Its no fuss, straight forward story telling, never over reaching itself, always telling the simple truth, will always connect to readers. I wouldn’t go so far as to calling Holding The Man a classic or anything like that, but there’s something about this AIDS memoir which I think will last.

Edmund White wrote a series of autobiographical novels about growing up gay, ending with friends dieing of AIDS. This book fits somewhere between fiction and autobiography, like the White novels.

The first half of Holding The Man reads much like fiction, as it is narrated by a teenager, rather than an adult looking back on his life. There’s nothing in the writing to say out loud that this is an autobiography, the memory re-call of a man dieing of AIDS. The second half moves more into an adult voice, and by the book's end, you get freaked out when you realize it’s a true story, that the narrator is actually describing his lover’s slow death from AIDS. The author blurb at the front says that Conigrave died only months after finishing the book.

It’s a story of innocence and terrible experience. The first half describes young gay sexuality, and the fun and pleasure of early experiences. Tim Conigrave meets his boyfriend John at school and they start a relationship that is to last some 15 years. There’s so much promise ahead for both of them.

Then it’s the eighties, and AIDS hits. Both decide to get tested. In a horrible scene, John is told that he is not HIV positive. He is then called back into the doctor’s office to be told that they mixed up the results and that he is actually HIV positive. Then Tim is diagnosed as being positive too. Tim is the one who stays healthier, while John gets very sick, eventually succumbing to cancer.

The descriptions of visits to hospital, dangerous operations and just being horribly, horribly sick, are just gut wrenching. It’s terrible when you think of two young healthy young men being made so sick by this bug. Frankly, I don’t know how Conigrave wrote so intimately, and in a lot of ways, with quite a bit of necessary detachment, about his boyfriend’s slow death. When John finally dies, he describes how he defecated upon death, and how the ‘sweet’ smell of excrement filled the hospital room.

Then there are other descriptions of almost fighting John’s father for the right to clean up and look after his boyfriend’s body.

I don’t see how anyone could read this book and not be moved by this wonderful-terrible story of love and death. Death by AIDS for these two young lovers seems so cruel, so terrible, so unfair, and such a waste.

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