Portrait of A Woman to the theme of HIV and AIDS in literature, and it's just the incentive I needed to bust Positively to the top of my to-be-read pile. Once you've read my review, please do head over to Portrait of A Woman to check out Caroline's posts here.
Positively is the story of thirteen year old Emmy, who has just lost her mother to AIDS. Emmy was diagnosed with HIV at the age of four, and has taken regular medication ever since to keep her well. Now, struggling with her grief and her own sense of isolation, she now resents having to live with her father (who doesn't have the virus) and his pregnant wife. Everything in her life seems so uncertain - what's the point of doing her homework or thinking about boys if she doesn't know if she'll even grow up? But then her father sends her to Camp Positive, a charity-run summer camp for girls who have HIV, and Emmy begins to see that she has plenty to live for.
Positively is the story of a thirteen year old girl grieving for her mother, and herself. While I can't deny that this bittersweet novel does have some terribly sad moments, it's written with a lightness of touch that somehow manages to convey the intensity of protagonist Emmy's feelings without relying on sentimentality. Obviously it's always going to be heartbreaking to read about a child in this situation, but Positively is also an uplifting novel. Amidst Emmy's tangle of emotions, glimmers of hope gradually appear - and it's these little breakthroughs that will leave you choked up. There are some scenes that will undoubtedly bring tears to readers' eyes, but they're used sparingly and have all the more impact as a result.
Emmy herself is the kind of character you just can't help but like. She's sparky and spirited, even when she's bottling her grief up and refusing to let anyone in. As a narrator, she's always completely frank in a way that she can't be with those around her, so that even when she's acting out we completely understand why. That said, she does strike me as a quite young thirteen year old, meaning that tweens will probably relate to her slightly more than the YA demographic will.
Of course, Positively is also an educational experience. There are occasional passages that seem rather heavily didactic, but in a way that wasn't as much as a problem for me as it would usually be. Courtney Sheinmel is a great storyteller, but it's also clear that she wants to promote understanding of HIV and AIDS and to set the record straight about certain popular misconceptions. The factual information worked into the novel adds to its authenticity, and I finished the book feeling a lot more well-informed about HIV. Still, this is one character's story, and Sheinmel does make a point of the fact that different people will have very different experiences of living with this disease.
There are no real surprises here: the story is gently paced, and the character development heads pretty much in the direction you'd guess at the outset. However, it's a worthwhile and enriching read. Positively is a novel to be inspired by. It's thoughtful and moving and sensitive, and while it does read young it also has a lot to teach us at any age.
Out: since September 15th 2009, US