When I was in my very early teens my step-father drove me to the National Gallery in Canberra for an art exhibition. This was an eight hour round trip excluding viewing time and the hefty excursion was undertaken because I wanted to see “Don’t Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of AIDS”. The exhibition was incredibly raw and incredibly moving. While it was an unusual topic for me to be interested in at such a young age, the gritty realism of such a compelling subject matter has never left me. Most formidable of all from this exhibition was not the abstract artwork, but the hauntingly simple black and white photographic portraits of sufferers, many of whom are long since gone. Growing up at the dawn of the HIV/ AIDS epidemic, the disease itself was hypocritically omnipresent and strikingly absent. While the friends and family of my childhood were untouched by such tragedy, I could not say the same later in life.
The first time I really came to read or understand about this disease was through Bryce Courtenay’s powerful April Fool’s Day. While Courtenay was an exquisite story teller of incredible imagination, it was this book about his son that, for me, remains his greatest work. Courtenay’s prose is predictably flawless but what makes April Fool’s Day impeccable is the culpable honesty of Courtenay and his unrelenting love for his son.
Holding The Man does not share Courtenay’s unblemished structure. Like many autobiographies, the prose and syntax are not exceptional and can feel a little clunky. It is inelegant and raw but that makes Conigrave’s journey all the more resolute and uncompromising. Conigrave himself is a flawed narrator. He is not monogamous and he makes many, many mistakes. There were countless times he irritated me but that just added to the unfettered honesty of his story. This book recommendation came to me from someone who had seen the film. And I want to watch the movie having read this tale because I think it would benefit enormously from the different medium. The text is most powerful in the last third and to be enveloped by it, you should persevere through the more awkward moments (and there are some very difficult paragraphs to read, particularly while he discovers his sexuality).
Like the black and white photographs from that exhibition long ago, a little piece of Tim and John’s story will likely stay with me for a very long time. For that reason alone, it is well worth the read.