March 3, 2017 The Things We Promise will take you to another time

A time when AIDS was even scarier than talking to a boy you like.

That time was 1990. Bob Hawke was Prime Minister, Salt-N-Pepa had replaced Boy George in our hearts and school was full of deadly serious problems like figuring out what to wear to the formal and how to treat girls who get off with other girls’ boyfriends.

The Things We Promise, a new novel by J.C. Burke, follows a girl named Gemma who is very excited about the formal that’s coming up at the end of the year. (In fact, the chapters are subtitled with how many weeks it is until the big night.) But Gemma’s even more excited about her big brother Billy, who lives in New York City, coming home to do hair and make-up for her and her bestie Andrea.

It doesn’t take too much gaydar to work out that Billy’s gay, but that’s not the big surprise of the book – that’s information that’s taken for granted. Billy lives with his boyfriend Saul, Billy’s dad hates “poofters” and may have moved out of home because he learnt his son was gay, Billy’s out and proud with plenty of mates. Gemma loves him more than anything in the world, especially since he’s got his finger on the fashion pulse and can send home swatches for their dressmaker mum to build a formal dress from…

The book isn’t just about Gemma’s connection to her brother, though. She’s also navigating friendships with the girls in her year, pining after the “hottest guy in school”, Ralph, and trying her best not to live up to her mum’s nickname for her: Polly Pessimistic. That becomes especially difficult as she starts to realise the people closest to her are hiding things. Suddenly her self-obsessed bubble looks ready to pop.

The Things We Promise is a nostalgia trip tinged with tragedy, looking back on a couple of decades that seem like centuries ago – even while the main characters are relatable today. There’s a chance you may cry, so be careful where you read it…

The Things We Promise, Allen & Unwin, RRP $19.99.

Shane Cubis
is a contributor to A•STAR