April Fool’s Day by Bryce Courtenay

One of the hardest things in life is seeing someone you care about go through adversity or struggle. It’s innately humane to want to absorb the pain for ourselves and protect our loved one from the slings and arrows of sickness and trauma. While the afflicted one is unquestionably single-minded in their immediate battle, those of us who are mere accessories to the pain are left to contend with helplessness, confused agony and what sometimes feels like incompetent love.

I have thought for many years that April Fool’s Day is Bryce Courtenay’s greatest work. Don’t get me wrong, I thought The Power of One was sublime. But April Fool’s Day is a gift of such raw and honest poignancy, that I have read and reread this epic memoir more times than I can count. I used to own a very much loved and reread copy of this tome but sadly had to let it go. Like the book’s thematic exploration, my pre-loved physical copy became as transient as the life the text celebrates. But very recently, and perhaps given the ongoing health sitch of one of my cherished friends, I downloaded a digital version so I can once again be absorbed by its message of gratitude and great love. Because April Fool’s Day is as life-affirming as it is incredibly, incredibly morose.

Courtenay’s profound bio is a tribute to the much-too-short life of his dear son Damon. Damon, a haemophiliac, contracted HIV through a blood transfusion in late 1983, aged 17. The early 1980s was the very genesis of the AIDS epidemic. Damon’s haemophilia made him endure painful and protracted bouts of unrelenting restrictions and, through bad luck and circumstance, would give birth to the even more capricious and mercurial HIV/ AIDS diagnosis. While medicine, education and (lord hopes) bigotry have progressed in extraordinary bounds since Damon’s diagnosis, Courtenay’s tale of filial love is as timeless as it is boundless.

As titanic as Courtenay’s devotion is to his son, April Fool’s Day reveals more than just an examination of fatherly love. Staunchly holding ground in the wings is the irrepressible Celeste. Devoted, constant and unwavering in her care of her beloved, Celeste’s omnipresence in the last six years of Damon’s life demonstrates the very best of loyalty and faith that I have ever seen. More than anyone, Celeste had borne witness to Damon’s deterioration as his body betrayed his determined spirit. Her battlements against Damon’s illness were the quadrella of humour, energy, determination and love. Pure and absolute love for what would be a temporary union. As Courtenay so eloquently articulated, she was not prepared to let Death into Damon’s room and would fight it back again and again. Damian died on 1 April 1991.

Courtenay starts his epic chronicle with a quote from Virgil’s Aeneid IV – all at once the warmth fell away and the life passed into the moving air. It stings my eyes every time I read it.

Oh sweet and kind Celeste, wherever you are. I hope only good things have come to you.

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Holding the Man by Timothy Conigrave

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.