Having just finished this novel, I’m full of questions and admiration for Brunt. Written in 2012, set in the 1980’s, it certainly addresses the taboos of society during this era surrounding AIDS, through the protagonist’s journey of realisation and love. June Elbus: the epitome of innocence interlinked with a newfound sense of rebellion. Her journey of learning to accept a wrong love is both poignantly naive and heartbreaking as she understands the ramifications of her unrealistic desires. What’s additionally poignant is the fact that Brunt outlines the direction of the novel from the first page: we understand that we have to accept a loss before we turn to the second page.
I think the most interesting concept in this novel is we ultimately know what will happen in the end. There’s a foreboding death hinted throughout the second half of the novel, very subtly understated yet very prominent in the actions and decisions of the characters. In many ways, Toby’s death is just as painful as the loss of June’s innocence. We as readers grow to accept Toby for the actions he is accused of and what he has done, and our love for Toby is reflected through the endearing, innocent June and her love for Toby. We learn to admire Toby for who he is and everything he stands for, not for the supposed crime he has committed and what has happened to Finn.
Toby is everything Finn is not and that’s quite possibly what makes him so charming; he’s not an artist, he doesn’t have family in the country and he’s estranged from everyone and everything he knew. He’s learning to make his own way in this prejudiced world, alone and at a distinct disadvantage fundamentally due to his sexuality alienating him. His death hits the reader and June very deeply, almost unfairly snatched from us both as his true identity begins to unravel before us.
The topic of AIDS is so beautifully expressed in this text; Brunt confronts the issue with compassion and fragility, similar to the characteristics possessed by it’s victim, Finn. Times have changed with regards to AIDS and it’s treatments/cures which the reader will recognise whilst following the protagonists’ journeys, but we’re nevertheless transported into a time where AIDS was believed to be as lethal as the plague and anyone in a close radius of a patient will consider themselves at risk of “catching” it.
I find the character of Greta most compelling, however. She is immediately and instantly dislikable with her cruel and cutting attitude towards her little sister; she’s calculating and malicious once she realises what her younger sibling is doing. Yet, we understand she’s coming of age and is fighting her own battles which torment her, too, thus making her a sympathetic figure by the end of the novel: we admire her and respect her, finally. Her fear of losing her younger sibling to another love she refused to offer results in her acting with cutting maliciousness through cold remarks and sarcastic rhetorical questions. Greta is quite possibly the smartest character in the novel and although she makes mistakes, they’re understandable and forgivable. Her brief snapshots of kindness and mature, older-sibling care are greatly appreciated by us, not so much by June as we understand before she does what exactly she’s going through; quite possibly some of the readers have experienced her internal conflict, too, and the evaporation of childhood towards the rush of entering adulthood.
We laugh with Finn and June as we follow their footsteps, internally grimacing and sympathising with June as she naively mistakes familiar compassion for romantic love and we cry with June as we lose someone we barely know, yet adore nevertheless. The embedded innocence in all of the characters is something conveyed so exceptionally by Brunt, connecting the reader to the character. The loss of two of the most beautiful souls is something the reader struggles to come to terms with, just as June and Greta do, yet we are comforted with the knowledge that they loved and were loved in return, in equal measure. And that’s fundamentally important for every living soul: to love and be loved.