This classic read (first published in 2000) is about the brutality and horrendousness of AIDS. No modern disease can frighten in the way AIDS can, but none more so than in the 1980s and 90s before antiretroviral drugs became a lifeline and replaced the automatic death sentence that catching HIV had become. I visited hospices during this period and saw young men with the disease transformed into skeletal figures before their untimely death. So this exquisitely written book takes us back in time to the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and provides a great reminder of the devastation caused to the thousands of people whose lives were touched by AIDS.
This story is set around an American named Austin, an art historian and writer in his late forties who has lived in Paris for eight years. Austin had many rich friends. He likes the finer things in life. He is a snob who prefers upper class society to his own more modest background. He travels widely and is well-known and respected in his work. He enjoys frequent sex and has had many boyfriends and conquests. Austin is HIV positive. One day at a gym, he makes eye contact with a handsome Frenchman named Julien, an architect in his early thirties. Julien is married, although he is in the process of divorcing his African wife. Austin falls in love with Julian but is worried about losing him if he discloses his HIV status. It is only after they’ve had sex on a number of occasions that Austin finally tells him the truth. Julien is fine with this and continues the relationship. They enjoy a fabulous, decadent lifestyle among Parisian high society, coupled with lavish trips overseas and all the finer and luxurious trappings that life brings. It is only when Julien is required to take a HIV test in order to get a visa to visit America that he finds out he is HIV positive – and what’s more he is in the early stages of AIDS. We are led to believe that he may have become infected from Austin, before other seeds of doubt are planted. Although his ex-wife tests negative, the reader is left wondering if Julien was promiscuous during his time in Africa or had a secret gay life in Paris that he remained tight-lipped about. Either way, he stayed with Austin who remained by his side and cared for him through the ups and downs until Julien died whilst they were on holiday in Morocco.
Although this is an exquisite book, it’s not perfect in the sense that White’s descriptions can sometimes overshadow the main storyline. I should have sobbed like a baby when Julien died but I didn’t. My reaction was ‘finally he is dead’. I thought his illness was far too stretched out in the book; to the point I was beginning to get bored by its prolonging stance. My heart should have gone out to Austin who had lost his best friend and lover but it didn’t. Upon reflection there were reasons the book did not lend to the reader feeling deep emotions in the story. Although White’s descriptions of buildings, places and restaurants are extremely well done, I did find them to be sometimes unnecessarily lengthy. He seemed to invest far less time and effort in capturing the emotions associated with love, death and grief in the storyline. Whilst he tells the readers certain things about his two main characters and their past, for me at least, it didn’t feel enough to hook me into caring about what happened to either of them.
White, now 76, is a gay man himself (picture inset). I note from reading up on his life that he lived in Paris for many years and that he too has been HIV Positive for several decades. This background information left me wondering if he drew upon his own life experiences when creating this character, based on the level of detail in some of the descriptions. Whether or not he brought his own sexual experiences into the story I don’t know.
Another observation I had was that there are also various times throughout the book that it ever so slightly switched from fiction into ‘reportage’. This was comparable to an actor who briefly comes out of character before suddenly realising it and then switching quickly back into role, hoping that nobody noticed. This was particularly evident in the passage following Julien’s death where White describes in detail the Moroccan cultural milieu of death and funeral rituals in Islam. Austin’s loss and grief were cast aside whilst this ‘reportage’ played out, before White reverted back to Austin and the aftermath of Julien’s death. But for me, this proved just a fraction too late because the moment had passed.
Do add this book to your reading list though because I believe it accurately captures the fear, destruction and deep sense of hopelessness associated with HIV and AIDS in the early decades of its existence. I doubt if any other novels have been written since which convey this as convincingly as White does here. Maybe it helped that he is a gay man himself who lived through this era and who probably had friends who died of the disease, that this allowed him to give the story a powerful and realistic gravitas that may fail younger writers in years to come that don’t have this level of experience to draw upon. Notwithstanding my brief criticisms, this novel is undoubtedly a remarkable piece of writing and I’m sure it will continue to be recognised as such for a very long time to come.
© Declan Henry