Christodora by Tim Murphy
Publisher: Pan Mcmillan (23 February 2017)
Source: Publisher (NetGalley), The NUDGE and New Books Reviewers
Disclaimer: A complimentary copy of Christodora was provided by Pan McMillan via Netgalley and a hardcopy via Newbooks Reviewers in exchange for an honest unbiased review.
In this vivid and compelling novel, Tim Murphy follows a diverse set of characters whose fates intertwine in an iconic building in Manhattan's East Village, the Christodora. The Christodora is home to Milly and Jared, a privileged young couple with artistic ambitions. Their neighbour, Hector, a Puerto Rican gay man who was once a celebrated AIDS activist but is now a lonely addict, becomes connected to Milly's and Jared's lives in ways none of them can anticipate. Meanwhile, the couple's adopted son, Mateo, grows to appreciate the opportunities for both self-realization and oblivion that New York offers. As the junkies and protestors of the 1980s give way to the hipsters of the 2000s and they, in turn, to the wealthy residents of the crowded, glass-towered city of the 2020s, enormous changes rock the personal lives of Milly and Jared and the constellation of people around them. Moving kaleidoscopically from the Tompkins Square Riots and attempts by activists to galvanize a response to the AIDS epidemic, to the New York City of the future, Christodora recounts the heartbreak wrought by AIDS, illustrates the allure and destructive power of hard drugs, and brings to life the ever-changing city itself.
During the late 1920's the 'Christodora', a building situated in Manhattan's East Village was where new immigrants and the poorer members of the community would often find themselves housed. In the 1980's the building was redeveloped and made into luxury apartments where only the affluent could then afford to reside. With the beginnings of gentrification of the area the occupants of these luxurious apartments understandably caused resentment from the less affluent and homeless now unable to afford such accommodation where they'd once had little choice but to reside. Inevitably as tensions grew the infamous riots of New York ensued.
Tim Murphy's masterpiece uses the 'Christodora' as its focal point in the novel and is where its pivotal characters, sculptor Jared Traum and his artist wife Milly, and others live. We also follow a group of interconnected friends, artists, and gay activists over a span of four decades, ranging from the 1980's to 2020.
Being British, I couldn't say that I related much to the drug or gay scene of New York. I did however have gay friends, and some friends who took drugs, but I didn't personally know anyone with HIV.
What I do remember is the paranoia drummed up by the news media and our 'then' Government about the 'AIDS' plague, that a promiscuous gay community had brought upon themselves, and that it was now a threat to all of us if we were bisexual or had more than one sexual partner.
It had also become a requirement for more than one male applying for a joint mortgage and for gay men applying for health insurance, to take an HIV test before consideration. A positive result meant refusal of application, and a blemish on medical files, forever! Eventually we were better informed about this horrific, unprejudiced virus which would claim people from all walks of life, gender and sexual orientation.
'Christodora' educated me in many ways about the HIV plight of the 1980's and of the role 'gay activists' and scientists in America played in the fight for medical research, better health care, and legal rights for both gay men and lesbian women. It is because of these dedicated brave individuals that AIDS no longer needs to lead to a premature death or that its sufferers be subjected to discrimination, prejudice and fear.
Tim Murphy writes with real depth and clarity about his characters that it's hard to believe they aren't living and breathing people. One character's narrative had such a powerful impact on me that I felt breathless and giddy reading as she ploughed from one scene to another with a volatile energy gathering in pace and momentum, and with her increasing irrational, embarrassing and inappropriate behaviour. I felt 'manic', my head was in turmoil. Ava and the symptoms of her bi-polar disorder are so incredibly well written, I felt as if I was in the same headspace...as uncomfortable as this was it was brilliantly done!
Overlong at times, and confusing with time shifts leaping back and forth as characters gave their points of view, it was definitely worth the perseverance as I was rewarded with the 'payoff' as gradually everything made sense and the segments slowly slotted into place.
Hugely encyclopaedic in scope 'Christodora' is also a raw emotive 'coming of age' tale of sorts. I found every character compelling from the aforementioned Ava, struggling with her manic episodes, to one of the most intriguing but equally frustrating, and at times intensely unlikeable characters in the book, Hugo Villanueva.
'Christodora' is intelligently, and compassionately written with complex, flawed individuals, and evokes a real sense of an era full of fun, passion, pace and energy, with a vibe of the creative arts, and excitement of the music industry; then it turns on itself like a rabid dog and relentlessly drives us down into an abyss with descriptions of the devastating catastrophic effects of drug abuse (chiefly meth addiction), and the fear, pain and despair of losing, or leaving behind, friends and loved ones because of an unknown disease.
Utterly compelling and educational in respect of the relationships and interrelationships of the characters before, during, and after the emergence of a devastating disease that cut dead the excitement and euphoria of the gay, drug and disco days of the 80's...Highly recommended.