Monday, June 25, 2012

April Fool's Day by Bryce Courtenay

April Fool’s DayBryce Courtenay
1993, 450

Summary from Goodreads

Bryce Courtney's beloved son Damon, a haemophiliac, died from medically-acquired AIDS on Aprils Fool's day 1991, at the age of 24. In this book, he celebrates his life, but he condemns the medical approach taken towards AIDS, and how he and his family coped with Damon's haemophlia and early death.

My summary

I think I’ve mentioned before that one of my favorite novels is The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay.  After reading it I searched for other Courtenay novels with little luck because none of them are in print in the U.S.  I did luck into a copy of Tandia, the sequel to The Power of One in a used bookstore a couple years ago, but that was it.  So I was thrilled to find April Fool’s Day at the public library.

“April Fool’s Day” is not fiction.  It’s the true story of Bryce’s son Damon, a haemophiliac, who dies from medically-acquired AIDS.  For those who don’t know (cause I didn’t) haemophilia is a blot clotting disorder.  Basically the blood is missing a clotting factor so any bruise has the potential to result in severe internal bleeding.  This requires frequent blood transfusions with Factor VIII (the missing clotting factor).

Damon struggles with haemophilia and the staid medical community as a child.  Due to laws in Australia anytime he has a bleed that requires transfusion, they must take him to the hospital to have the transfusion done.  The result is that the average time from discovery of a painful bleed, and completion of transfusion was 7-8 hours and this happened three times per week.  It wasn’t until Damon was 9 that this law changed allowing him to be transfused a home cutting treatment time in half.  The longer a bleed lasts the more damage it does to the joint (haemophiliacs' suffer from crippling arthritis due to bleed damage at very young ages).  Damon never feels sorry for himself and is a remarkable little boy and young man.

At seventeen, Damon and his family are informed of his positive HIV status, but so little was known about the disease that it was downplayed.  It definitely took a backseat to haemophilia.   About the same time, Damon met Celeste, an amazing woman who I could not have been more impressed with.  Using the word girlfriend to describe Celeste does not do justice to the impact she has on Damon's (and really the whole family's) life.  The devotion that Celeste and Damon have for each other is truly inspirational.

This novel had three different aspects that affected me, first the information on the disease and the Australian healthcare system at the time were gripping, if hard to stomach.  The arrogance of the doctors involved in Damon’s care caused unnecessary damage to his already fragile joints.  The information on the early years of HIV/AIDs and how little was known was also revealing and disturbing.  It made me question my own views on the disease and realize I was still holding on to some judgement of those with the disease, I think left over from middle/high school health class.  This passage from the book sums up what we need to continue changing in how we react to HIV/AIDS: 
No disease is so vilified.  A terminally ill cancer patient is given love, compassion and caring by a generous society, no such blessing is afforded the victim of AIDS, who often suffers rejection and loathing all the way to the grave.  AIDS is the first disease in modern times which society has pronounced unclean, as though a sin agains God, and the journey to its end has become long and lonely and dreadful.

This was written in the early 1990's so our attitudes have enlighten since then, but I still think this attitude exists.

Another factor that made this novel really interesting for me, but possibly not for everyone else, were the elements that reminded me of The Power of One.  Bryce Courtenay grew up in South Africa, had experience with boxing, and had worked in the mines – all elements in The Power of One.  You find out midway through April Fool’s Day that he started writing The Power of One while Damon was sick and continued to write the sequel, Tandia.

Courtenay’s portrayal of  himself is not very sympathetic in the story of his son’s life and death.  He’s a workaholic, probably alcoholic, who doesn’t devote the time to his family that he should even in a situation without a chronically ill son.  He doesn’t show his wife any respect and in general seems misogynistic.   As much as I love The Power of One this did make me recognize that there’s only one woman portrayed in a very positive light in the novel and she’s not that large of a character.  And then in Tandia the main character is a very strong woman and it made me wonder if Courtenay’s attitude towards woman changed after seeing the positive impact that Celeste had on his son’s life. 

Celeste and Damon's relationship was the third aspect that kept me reading.  Honestly I struggled at the beginning to read from Courtenay's POV because he wasn't sympathetic.  About a third of the way into the book Celeste is introduced and several chapters are from her perspective and those chapters kept me reading.  Celeste and Damon were magic together. 

How do I assign a star rating to someone's life story?  The writing is excellent - Courtenay's prose is elegant but understated.    On a purely enjoyment level it would rate sort of average - there are sections that I found frustrating and had to put it down.  BUT it was also extraordinarily moving and I'm so glad I read it.

No comments:

Post a Comment