The Official Description: As If Death Summoned explores the early days of the AIDS epidemic.
In 1936, a man was caught in a blizzard on the Bogong High Plains of Australia. Found unconscious by a search party, he was taken to the nearest township where an old aborigine woman made the cryptic comment, “They brought back only his body.” He died soon after. In the decades since, there have been reports of a lone figure seen wandering over the heathlands. When approached, the man vanishes and no trace of him can be found. Almost sixty years later, a young American returns from Australia, haunted by dreams of the Bogong High Plains. After ten years of being on the front lines of the AIDS epidemic there, he, too, is lost in a kind of blizzard that has already claimed thirty-one friends—the thirty-first being his lover. Now burnt out and exhausted, he’s often mistaken for one of the infected but no longer bothers correcting people. Let them think what they will, he tells himself. I’m not dying. I’m already dead. Struggling to recall a time when life was about more than death, he nonetheless plunges back into the heart of the epidemic, working with an AIDS organization in Portland, Oregon, where he will eventually come to understand his mystic connection to the Bogong High Plains and the significance of the old woman’s words: When he returned to the States, he brought back only his body.
Just the facts: Queer characters, diverse, HIV/AIDS, Fiction
This novel captures the heart, passion, and humour of those on the frontlines of HIV/AIDS work. The devastation, the loss, the trying-to-keep-going. It’s all here.
– Kinzie Things
My thoughts bit:
An unnamed narrator heads up the cast of characters in this remarkable book. He is living in a time when AIDS was decimating the gay population. the narrator is struggling to come to terms with the loss of his partner, Gray when he ends up working at an HIV/AIDS organization.
The story encompasses a few timelines. In 1994, the narrator is setting up a new and innovative program in Portland. He and an eclectic team of men will be testing gay men for HIV. As the men get to know one another, uncovering their weaknesses, challenges and strengths, they become a strong team of advocates.
In the recent past, the narrator is spending time with his deceased partner, Gray. The two men lived in Australia for many years and had a great life. Gray shares a very integral story with the narrator one day – he speaks about a time when he was lost and was shown the way back to his family by an unknown man.
Gray and the narrator talk about the story of a tragedy in the past at Bogong High Plains. Three men set off on a skiing adventure and were caught in terrible weather. Desperate, one man goes for help …but by the time that help comes, it’s too late for one of them. An indigenous woman sees the two live men who have been rescued but remarks that they have brought back “only the body”.
There is another timeline … not far in the future – set in 1995 when the narrator is in a hospital waiting room. Rose captures the knot of emotions that are faced in that waiting room. There is a fear that something will happen and there’s the fear that nothing will happen. It’s such a strange in-between world that waiting room.
There’s an interesting exploration in this book of death and the effect it has on others. As someone who worked at an AIDS organization – I have to say that this book captures the grief, the numbness and the sorrow of multiple losses. Losing many people consecutively, loss upon loss, can make it feel as though you’re simply waiting for death yourself.
As I mentioned, the narrator in the book is still processing his partner’s death when he begins to meet and forge strong relationships with other who are living with and dying from AIDS. He sees in those around him, the way that people process death, life and all the messiness that happens in between. He sees strength, and he creates friendships with people he might not have otherwise found time for.
Without a doubt, this is an exploration of grief and how it slowly picks away at someone over time. Too much grief… is something humans simply weren’t intended to face. HIV/AIDS took the lives of so many… and the ones who were left behind were scarred by it.
There is a lot of dialogue in this story, but that works well. There’s a lot of information and history in this book. It is an authentic view of the times – including some language that some may find outdated. But! It was accurate for the time and simply reflects the growth and change that has happened.
This is a beautiful, intriguing, and authentic novel about living, dying and the battle to grieve or carry on.
Things You May Want To Know: Please be aware, I’m by no means an expert on what may or may not have the potential to disturb people. I simply list things that I think a reader might want to be aware of. In this book: (SPOILERS) Descriptions of death and dying, a transgender supporting character is misgendered and mocked (corrected in character’s thoughts and by another character later), mentions of past rape, mentions of systemic violence and racism, mentions of sexual assault, mentions of drug use, homophobia, internalized homophobia.
I received an ARC of As If Death Summoned by Alan Rose from Bywater Books via Edelweiss in exchange for an unbiased review.