Just Like February

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 27 Mar 2018

Member Reviews

What is February? A wonderful metaphor for the unpredictable, of opposites, a reminder to live without expectation while also appreciating ritual and traditional when it is gifted.

“It was the only way I could make sense of something that seemed so arbitrary to me. I soon began noticing things I’d never noticed in February. A sudden whiff of early spring one day, followed by a snowstorm the next. A certain restlessness in the air.”

Just Like February by Deborah Batterman is a novel that is immersed in nostalgia for the past, for the innocence of childhood and the reluctant awakening of the adolescent, of the fragility of love, the need for forgiveness, the pain of judgement.

When it opens Rachel is 5 years old, remembering the on again, off again nature of her parents commitment to getting married. She finds solace in her Uncle Jake, when he is around and through his postcards and letters, as he voyages around.

There is a longing in her that only Jake can appease, however there is mystery around him that is slow to be revealed though often hinted at throughout the text, a reminder in the way of it being written of traditional attitudes of skirting subjects, keeping up appearances, of that lurker, denial.

Once it becomes clear to the reader what’s happening to Jake, I couldn’t help but think of similar decisions that were made by the producers in consultation with band members of the rock group Queen (amid plenty of controversy), in the extraordinary film Bohemian Rhapsody a wonderful tribute to their creative music making and to their lost lead singer Freddie Mercury.

They highlighted family tension as well as tenderness, an unrequited love that endured despite all the pain, creativity born out of frustration and conflict. It was not necessary to over indulge the audience with the misery of the slippery slope, that temporary gratification, hedonism lured him into. It was hinted at, respectfully.

And so too I wonder about the stories behind the story, what would this story be if Jake had been the protagonist, or if Rachel had been more forthcoming earlier on. In a way the novel experiences that secrecy of the eighties, for despite what it says in the blurb, it doesn’t confront the issue of AIDS, it waits until nearly the end before revealing it, thereby creating in the reading experience that same feeling of something being held back, not addressed.

It’s a novel that makes you want to peel back the layers and find out why, the reason perhaps he avoided those family gatherings that are known to get to the heart of issues, when families can no longer keep up appearances and combust. I could feel myself wanting to leave that table. 

Just like February.
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Beautifully written and engrossing.  Definitely recommend.
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This was a DNF for me.  The chapters were incredibly long and it appeared that this story was going nowhere.
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  'It was the first Sunday in September 1974, and we were all so happy, and never never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that ten years and eight months later my parents would separate, and never never in my darkest dreams could I imagine I would one day be driving along the parkway, windows open to a cruel breeze that would take me from the edge of harmony to a cold, flat reality. "Jake is gone," I hear myself say. Jake is gone.'   

 Just Like February  follows five year old Rachel as her parents (her mother a pacifist social worker, her father a Vietnam veteran) are finally married, through the dramas of young girlhood, friendship, family drama, and sexual awakening. Through all of this is the figure of Jake, her uncle and her idol, an avid traveller and artist who falls ill and dies from AIDS just as Rachel comes of age. 

This book was simply beautiful, the writing was incredible and Batterman did a stellar job of evoking the precipice that was the 70s /80s, with the remnants of the free and wild 60s sparring with the crises of the 80s. The family is at the heart of this novel, and the relationships between the characters are so tender, even during times of tension. Rachel's grandmother is a particularly brilliant character, strong-willed and traditional, with an undying love for her family manifesting itself in rituals and obsessive behaviours like earthquake watching. 

  'For my grandmother, comfort was sitting at the kitchen table, reading through newspapers in the hope of finding that one headline, that one new bit of scientific trivia, that would confirm, or at least shed light on, something she thought she knew.'  

There's no denying that Rachel's grandmother is the cornerstone of the family, but I was impressed by how well her children's relationships were also depicted, as sometimes when reading a book through the eyes of a child, it can be difficult to see the characters in other ways aside from 'mother' 'uncle' 'grandmother'. But Rachel's mother, Jake, George, and Vivian were shown in private relation to one another as well, and these dimensions really made the novel bloom beyond what I expected. 

The novel is partially epistolary, which was another beautiful dimension to the storytelling, ranging from postcards and gifts from Jake on his travels, to letters between Rachel and her friend Laura towards the end of the book, after their sudden falling out. This close relationship was another star in the novel for me, depicted so tenderly and believably and exploring how friendships strengthen and survive through all the odds, and how they can splinter apart in seconds, and the tentative ways those splinters can be salvaged and stuck back together again. 

  I dug a little harder, watched the faint imprint of my fingernails disappear with each breath. Laura's cheek was resting on the backs of her hands, and her eyes were closed, and she had the smile of a good dream on her face. She yawned and lifted her head, and together we climbed under the covers, tossing and turning, following each other's sleepy voices in the dark, tugging at opposite ends of the blanket until it encased us like a cocoon, and then, out of restlessness or curiosity or both, we held each other close, giggling and trying to get a sense of what it was that excited boys.'  

I absolutely love the way the novel is situated in places. Time seems endless and slippery in the novel, jumping from age to age and with the values of different times all converging on the other, but Batterman describes place with such beauty and brevity that you always feel anchored in the events, even if they feel like a fairy story through the eyes of a young child. 

  'A place where people once made paintings right on rock, and if you stood very still, Jake said, you could feel the colors and taste the marsh and smell the kookaburra before you heard it and believe, for a minute or two or three, that you were on the very edge of time. This very week, this very day, this very hour, Jake might be admiring a rock painting or weaving his way through the Great Barrier Reef or boating down a river in search of crocodiles while I, halfway around the world, dreamed of sugar roses and white lace and tried very hard to understand how forty-four days could simultaneously pass so swiftly and so slowly.'  

The overriding theme of the novel is hope, constant hope that things will turn out for the best, that through all of the trials and tribulations within the family, and through illness, things will get better. And while Jake's illness is terrible and brief, and the injustice continues beyond the ending of the book, for this family Batterman executes a satisfying, world-aware and bittersweet ending. 

  At 11:39:13 a.m., the  Challenger  is off the ground, gone in a puff of smoke four seconds later. [...] I think about Jake, too, up there, the astronaut he once wanted to be. And if he had been up there, he would have died, it would have been fast, he would be a hero.'  
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I like to read different genres from time to time and this fell into that category for me.I guess the simple description of this book is that it is a coming of age tale,  no family is perfect and that makes them all the more interesting  .The inclusion of a beloved and charismatic gay uncle adds to the flavour., I don't like giving much away but it is documented already that he has Aids and dies and those issues are explored I don't think I am giving anything away by saying that, this was a sweet but realistic  look at an awful time in our history when the Aids crisis first became known about.But this is not just a sad book it is also an uplifting and inspiring book and a great coming of age tale. its one to read and think about after you have turned the last page .I think it is a book that will stay with you and is well worth a read. thanks to the Publishers and netgalley for an ARC.
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Beautifully written.  Covering the years of early 70's through the eyes of a young woman, Rachael Cohen.  Rachael adores her gay uncle, Jake, who falls victim to AIDS.  An off kilter family, as one might label today as "dysfunctional.  Her father is a Vietnam veteran and her  mother a true flower child.  Ruling is the very opinionated Grandmother.  A poignant story about love and tears during the late 60's and 70's.  The author, Deborah Batterman has created a book to be remembered.  Publication date is April 10, 2018.
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