Review: JC Burke – The Things We Promise

The Things We Promise
JC Burke

During the height of the HIV and AIDs epidemic in the 1990s, Gemma is blissfully ignorant of any health issues that could be going on in her home town of Sydney. Her worst concerns are who she will hang out with school and what kind of hairdo she is going to have her brother Billy do for her formal.

I’ll be the first to say that a lot of the language in the novel is offensive. It’s particularly offensive to gay people, eg. “limp-wristed, pillow-biting, doughnut punching bum bandit”. Which, given the subject matter, I’m not surprised that it’s targeted so negatively. But I also appreciated the hard feelings and accuracy of that. It felt ‘real’.

The problem some reviewers had with this novel was that it was horrifically offensive to a variety of people. While I agree that it is, I also accept that this novel is an accurate snapshot of the early 90s, where this sort of language, beliefs and behaviour was common. If you are easily offended and can’t understand the setting of the novel (such as a slavery novel with ‘nigga’ in it), this novel is not for you.

It’s an interesting way of approaching the early years when very few people knew about HIV and how it was transmitted. It paints a picture of how miserable things really were from a personal perspective, not just a sheer number of people who were infected as a sterile statistic.

I’m giving this three stars. It took me a while to warm up to it, and despite eventually enjoying it, it seemed a little forced at times.

Allen & Unwin | 22nd February 2017 | AU $19.99 | Paperback

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