Every now and again a book comes along, that for whatever reason you read at precisely the right moment and it has the potential to affect you tremendously. Most recently I had this experience with Bryce Courtenay’s beautifully written, but heart wrenching story about his youngest son’s death at the age of 23, which I have just finished reading. The cover was familiar. I had glanced over the book hundreds of times both as an adolescent perusing my parents bookshelves for something to read and later as an adult on the same mission when visiting my mother. But for some reason, I had not picked it up to read until now. I always say you need to be in a certain frame of mind to read some books and perhaps my current state of mind was simply ripe to read April Fool’s Day.
The book brought me to tears on many occasions but it also occasioned me to laugh out loud and at other instances to feel genuine anger and disgust towards the blatant lack of empathy and consideration of the Australian medical and political communities of the time. Not since reading Shantaram or indeed Sepharad last summer in Europe, have I felt this connected and impacted by a book and even then not on this level.
Reading for me is, and always has been, a refuge, an opportunity to delve into another world and escape my own for a while. The topic of Courtenay’s book is not what you would call light reading or indeed lighthearted. The story of his son’s slow and painful demise is horrendous and Courtenay does not shun away from the details or try to hide the reality of the suffering caused by haemophilia or AIDS. But what struck me most about the book, and I believe this was one of the goals in writing it, was the sheer positivity, willpower, desire to live and unfailing love portrayed by his son Damon and the entire family, and in particular in the relationship between Damon and his girlfriend Celeste.
You really begin to question your own priorities and petty problems when confronted with a book like this. I almost felt ashamed at myself for giving my own minor grievances so much airtime and energy over the past few months.
Courtney masterfully blends raw despair and heartfelt humour, both of which make up most human lives, throughout his writing. Despite the seriousness of the book, one particular scene is simply brilliantly written and had me in absolute stiches. It is when Courtenay is describing his three son’s plunge into what he calls ‘pubescent insanity’.
‘Instead of quite liking their parents they now see them as practically mentally retarded. Everything “sucks” and nothing can be done to please them. Their angst, confusion, malice, ill-temper, thoughtlessness, despair, superiority and disinterest comes out in the form of arms locked across their chests and brows so deeply furrowed as to be practically prehensile. Their voices drop an octave and they temporarily lose the ability to speak, this faculty being replaced by a Neanderthal grunt which covers every possible situation they may confront.’
The book not only provided me with a bit of a shake up to reconsider my own priorities but oddly enough it was also a balm of sorts. Since leaving Australia four months ago after an almost four-year stint Down Under, I have only recently begun to realise how much I missed the country, the people, the way of life and my own life there. Despite being born in South Africa, Courtenay lived most of his life in Australia and in my opinion – having taught and read some Australian literature – he has developed an Australian flair for writing. Reading this quasi-Australian novel with many familiar expressions and locations was like a temporary balm on my still open wound.
I have to admit that it took me a while to appreciate Australia literature and the books and short stories of writers such as Tim Winton and Henry Lawson. They have a unique quality about them that makes them distinctly Australian, as well as possessing an uncanny ability to capture the feeling of the country and it’s people. The writing is raw and open, unlike many of the American and British authors I have read over the years, who often tend to embellish situations and skirt around the reality. There are of course many exceptions to this claim, Zadie Smith being one that immediately springs to mind. Nevertheless it took me a while before I really appreciated the writing of Australian authors. I suppose coming from a diet of largely classical books, the majority being from English authors and female, maybe I am slightly late in coming to the table in my appreciation of more modern and realist writing. However, being a high school English teacher in Australia certainly helped in broadening my literary repertoire.
Being the true geek and English teacher that I am, despite leaving Australia, I have kept abreast of the changes being made to the NSW English curriculum. I most recently perused the new list of prescribed texts for the HSC. Always on the lookout for new books myself – my amazon Wish List is almost at 200 books – I was pleasantly surprised by the many new and varied texts that have been added and indeed to the extensive number of Australian authors included. While I cannot as of yet offer an opinion on many of these authors, apart from Winton’s of course, I do plan to read a number of these over the coming months.
But I digress from my original purpose in writing this post, which was to talk about Courtenay’s April Fool’s Day. The book simply has to be read. I cannot say much more than that, it is a wonderful, heartbreaking and life-affirming book that has helped me in beginning to get back on track and refocus my priorities. But please ensure you have time to savour it, don’t rush this book, and make sure that you are in the right frame of mind to read something of this intensity.