April Fool’s Day by Bryce Courtenay

A quick rundown…
The true story of Bryce’s son, Damon who contracts HIV through a blood transfusion.

Strengths: Very emotional and brutally honest.

Weaknesses: Very sad.

Why I read it: Present from my mother.

Pages: 648

Published: 1994

Publisher: Penguin Australia

Setting: Australia

Rating: 9 out of 10.

If you liked this, try: Holding the Man by Timothy Conigrave, which also deals with HIV and AIDS.

April Fool’s Day was a book I wasn’t sure that I wanted to read initially for several reasons – I don’t read as much non-fiction as fiction, surely Bryce Courtenay’s talent lay in fiction and it was probably out of print. Enter a Popular Penguin edition and an edict from my mother that I must read this book and she knew I would enjoy it immensely. I started reading this on my daily commute but soon I was hooked. Such a powerful story – all completely true, you can’t make up this sort of thing and an incredibly emotional, harrowing journey for the Courtenay family.

I always respected Courtenay as a writer before this, but after reading this book, I have the utmost respect for him overall. The story of his son Damon, born a haemophiliac who contracted HIV through a blood transfusion and later died of AIDS related complications is compelling for so many reasons. Damon was a brave battler and his strength while living through chronic pain, bleeding and countless infections is to be commended. The rallying of the Courtenay family and Damon’s partner Celeste around him is a testimony to the strength of the loving family (from going along with Damon’s delusions to taking him to the hospital on many occasions). This book is a celebration of life and love – the good, the bad and the ugly.

From a medical point of view, this book is also exceptionally interesting for several reasons. One, to read about diseases, hospitals, doctors and treatments from the patient and family point of view was an eye opener. The way Damon was treated on occasions by medical ‘professionals’ was awful. Secondly, to read about the medication side effects from the actual effect on the patient – also interesting. What may be classed as minor to those not taking the drug can have a huge effect on the quality of life on the person (such as Damon and diarrhoea with AZT). Finally, it was amazing to see the comparison between HIV and AIDS treatment today and in the late 80s / early 90s when Damon was being treated. So much progress has been made and I felt so sad that if this had happened 20 years later, it may be Damon telling his whole story, rather than his father.

It was also interesting to see how attitudes to the gay community have changed and how more widely educated the public is about HIV and AIDS. (Damon was mistreated by nurses who mistakenly thought that AIDS equals gay. Thank goodness we have moved on from that.)

Bryce Courtenay is brutally honest in this retrospective of his son’s life. He laments of the lack of time spent with his kids in the early years (due to a job in advertising that really does sound a little Mad Men-esque) and losing his temper when perhaps he shouldn’t. These made me as the reader warm to him more – it’s not a rose coloured view. I hope it was cathartic for him to write this.

The ending was a tear jerker. Despite you knew it was coming, it didn’t make it any easier. It was lovely to read the postscript from Celeste and her life post-Damon.

In short, April Fool’s Day has it all – the happy times, the funny times, the awful times and the sad times. What a lovely thing for a father to create for his son.

3 thoughts on “April Fool’s Day by Bryce Courtenay

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  1. Interesting review although it’s one of those books I’d have to gear myself up for reading – though it sounds like it was worth the sadness for you. I read And The Band Played On by Randy Shilts early in 2010, which is about HIV/AIDS in the United States. When it started to become known in the 1980’s that the virus could be spread through blood products, haemophiliac organizations were very adamant that the Red Cross start screening the blood donations. The Red Cross successfully resisted for a long time, to the fury of those haemophiliac organizations. It was infuriating as a reader to read about it.

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