I have a guilty bookworm confession to make: lately, I’ve been reading books based on movie previews, something I don’t normally do. Holding the Man by Timothy Conigrave is one of those but don’t judge me, when you watch the movie preview you’ll understand why.
Based on the movie preview, I was expecting a book full of anguish and troubles. In fact, what I read was a witty, beautifully written story of one man’s personal growth as a gay teenager to an AIDS infected adult. I thought there would be more tantrums, shouting matches and tears in this book but Conigrave manages to strike the perfect balance in his book of angst, humour and humility.
If you want to skip the spoilers, scroll down to the verdict.
Holding the Man would have been considered a trailblazing novel when it came out, and I think it still is considered a must-read. The story is told through Conigrave’s point of view, and traces his life from adolescence to adulthood, starting from acknowledging his sexuality at 11 years old, to finding his place in the world as a gay man and dealing with the death of his husband and love of his life, John Caleo.
Conigrave’s style of writing is so distinctively ‘Australian’ (I don’t know how to describe this, it just is) and sets the tone for the whole story.
The story starts by setting the context for Conigrave’s life in surburban Melbourne and his first year in high school at a private, all-boy’s Catholic school. At first, young Tim is genuinely confused but quickly realises and comes to term with his sexuality. It seems that all his school mates figure it out quite soon and don’t mind, in fact, they explore their own sexuality by experimenting with Tim during sleepovers or camping trips.
On Tim’s first day at school, he sees John Caleo from a distance and develops an instant crush. Still unsure of how to navigate the waters of same-sex relationships, he harbours this intense crush for a while, even during a brief fling with a girl he meets on holidays. Eventually, a friend of his simply suggests that he tells John that he likes him and to see what happens. This suggestion takes Tim by surprise, both by the boldness of it and for the fact that Tim didn’t think of this himself.
After constant flirting with John, some friends from a neighbouring all-girls school help set up a group dinner to give Tim the opportunity to find out if John feels the same way. During this dinner, the group play a game where they have to kiss the person they are sitting next to, and Tim and John end up making out. John’s kiss lingers longer than Tim expects, confirming that John reciprocates Tim’s feelings.
This starts a whirlwind high-school romance, which includes all the trial and tribulations of teenage love: acceptance from their friends, acknowledging their relationship to their parents (Tim’s take it quite well, John’s Italian Catholic dad doesn’t) and planning their future together.
During university, Tim suggests taking a break so they can have more sexual experiences, and John reluctantly agrees, though it is difficult at first. Tim then tells stories of his sexual encounters while in university but realises that John is the only one that can meet his needs and desires. He is afraid that John won’t take him back, but when he asks John for a second chance, John accepts without hesitation.
Throughout the novel, Tim admits his indiscretions while being with John – he ends up acting in a theatre production which get hims into contact with other gay people in the industry and the cities that he tours to. He always feels guilty after but rarely tells John as he knows he would be upset.
Its the 80s and HIV/AIDS is identified and people are urged to get tested. Both men decide to get tested and find out the tragic news that they’re both positive. Together, they fight through the unknown battlefied of HIV/AIDS, ranging from how to break the news to their loved ones, and dealing with the symptoms and facing the inevitable. Tim’s reactions to it all are raw, honest and genuine.
In the end, John is the first to go and somehow Tim manages to convey the pain, hurt and loneliness he experiences in the wake of John’s passing. The story finishes off with a beautiful letter written by Tim, to a dead John, while he is holidaying in Italy in one of their favourite spots.
For anyone who’s ever experienced the loss of true love, this book will leave you blubbering like a baby. This is an honest, no BS account of one man’s love story. The fact that his great love is another man doesn’t even matter. In fact, it makes you realise more than ever that love is love, no matter your gender – we are all humans, and we all love equally.
What I love most about this book is how without even realising it, you are witnessing Tim’s growth from a boy to an adult. This is evident in the way the language and tone changes, but you are so engrossed in the story that it takes a while for you to see that he’s no longer a confused teenager, but a confused adult that’s slowly growing into a man who becomes comfortable in his skin. There are a few moments in this book that are so enlightening, and so relevant to today – one of them being when a fellow theatre colleague tells him to stop defining himself by his sexuality (also included in the movie preview clip).
The sad thing about this story isn’t John Caleo, but that Tim’s story is still a reality in 2016. Forty years later, and gay teenagers still feel and think the way Tim did in the 70s, and today’s adult generation still have the same attitude towards homosexuality today as they did in the 70s and 80s. I think it is a sad reflection of our society that we still can’t move on from those social stigmas; yes, although we’re slowly getting there, it’s not fast enough.
If you’re looking for an uplifting and eye-opening read by a great Australian author, this is your book. Whether you watch it before or after the movie is none of my business, but! I would always recommend reading the book first.