The Things We Promise by J.C. Burke
Published March 2017 by Allen & Unwin
Source: the publisher
Rating: 3 stars
From the blurb: It's the early 1990s and all Gemma can think about is looking perfect for her first school formal. Gemma's brother Billy - New York's up and coming hair and make-up artist - has made her the ultimate promise: he's returning home especially to 'create magic' on her and two friends for their end-of-year formal. Gemma's best friend, Andrea, is convinced it'll be their moment to shine; Gemma hopes it's the night Ralph will finally notice her.
But when Billy arrives home from New York, Gemma's life becomes complicated. Her family's been keeping secrets; friendships are forged and broken; and suddenly the length of her formal dress is the least of her worries.
Set in Sydney during the AIDS epidemic, The Things We Promise by J.C.Burke tells the story of Gemma Longrigg and her family. Gemma's in Year 11 and is counting down the months until the formal. Her older brother, Billy, has promised to do her hair and makeup and will make the trip home from NYC where he currently lives and works with his partner, Saul.
Gemma loves fashion and music. She's already begun planning her formal look, despite it being months away. Gemma's an overthinker, but she's fully of aware of this fact. She worries a lot, and slowly starts to realise that secrets are being kept from her. She and her mother get along well, but her father treated Billy abhorrently, before and after he came out, and eventually left to work on an oil rig.
The Things We Promise explores a time in history that a lot of teenagers are probably unaware of. I only have a vague memory of the Grim Reaper ads. The discrimination and abuse that gay men faced is absolutely shameful. Friends and family would shun them, some medical professionals wouldn't even see them as patients let alone operate on them. It's definitely a period in time that needs to be remembered, and the message of tolerance and compassion is universal and timeless.
Gemma struggles with keeping Billy's diagnosis a secret from her friends, often resorting to lying, understandably. Her friend Andrea reacts in a negative way, but she's clearly influenced by her parents' fear, and their friendship suffers because of it. Louise, Ralph, and Vanessa were bright spots in that Gemma's friendship group grew and she found there were people willing to support her.
I think what let the story down was how obvious all the secrets were, and how long it took Gemma to work things out. The reader is treated to a lot of her inner monologue and question-talking which slowed down the story.
Ableist language: idiot, mental, psycho, insane, schizo, lame, dimwitted, dumb, spack.
Problematic language: Gemma uses the term transvestite in a derogatory manner.
The Things We Promise is a moving and heartbreaking story of a family battling HIV and AIDS, at a time when there was a lack of support and understanding. It's a reminder to never forget and to work towards education and tolerance every day.
Thank you to Allen and Unwin for my copy.