Holding the Man by Australian actor Tim Conigrave is a difficult book to review as the subject matter is highly emotive so any criticism feels a little like speaking ill of the dead, however I have to say I do find myself at odds this well-loved Australian classic. I think I wanted more from it. I wanted Tim to be a better person and for him to reflect and grow from his experiences but the reflections were few and far between and lacked any real emotional depth.
Holding the Man felt like the kind of book that resonates with a certain generation and epitomises a certain time. The book is written by Tim Conigrave and documents his experiences through his explorations of his sexuality, through first love, his repeated infidelities, a positive diagnosis for HIV and throughout it all, the story of the love between his long term boyfriend John and himself. It conjures up the initial hysteria over HIV and AIDS and the proliferation of misinformation and absolute fear of being infected. The best biographies conjure up times and places in a way that makes that time and place accessible and real. They offer a gateway to the experiences of another in a way that can promote empathy and understanding. While Holding the Man did evoke my compassion, especially as the two men sickened considerably towards the end of the book, I felt oddly disconnected from it.
On reflecting on the book, I am trying to keep in mind that for one thing – Conigrave wasn’t trying to write a ‘Great Biography’. This is a real story about two Catholic kids from Sydney coming of age in a time when being gay was at best socially unacceptable and at worst something to be abhorred and shunned. Conigrave’s matter of fact, no holds barred style of writing can be very confronting especially the early parts of the novel which document his many sexual encounters in arguably too much detail. Some may find the honesty refreshing but I will admit that for me it got to a point when it became less about first experiences and more a tale of sexual conquest though I’m sure some may argue with me on that point.
In terms of self-reflection, I have had to remind myself that this book was Tim’s way of documenting the love between John and himself, and was written while Tim was becoming increasingly sicker. While I wanted more depth from him, I don’t think he was the type. Maybe if Tim had of had the chance for a long life, he would have grown more reflective in his old age but instead he lived fast and died young and we will never know what an older Tim would have thought of his many affairs and the impact this had on John. There was also some parts of the book which I found myself skimming past such as Tim’s trips to Bali and Italy which really dragged compared to the other chapters.
I know this is a well loved book especially amongst the gay community because it gives a voice to their struggles not just with discrimination but also with the pervasive and silent killer that is HIV. It demonstrates what it was like when the spotlight of the world turned towards HIV and AIDS and the private lives of the gay community were suddenly subject to scrutiny and hysteria. I found Tim and John’s story to be quite depressing and hopeless and I struggled to find the point in it all. I suppose it is that they managed to find each other despite the odds but perhaps on a broader level hope is to be found outside of the book with better education on sexual health, access to sexual health services, a society moving towards equality and acceptance (however begrudgingly and not quite as quickly as it should) and the soon-to-be reality of marriage equality which means that some of the issues in the book will soon be irrelevant.
Until next time.
PS: No, I haven’t seen the film yet.