Matilda Singer reviews Tim Murphy’s “important and memorable” debut novel
As the brownstone cover image might give away, Christadora is a New York novel – a gritty New York novel. Tim Murphy takes an unflinching look at how the city and its inhabitants have changed over the last four decades, touching on dysfunctional families, drug addiction, mental illness, the AIDs crisis and the artistic and cultural milieu of the city.
Jumping backwards and forwards in time, the plot follows multiple generations primarily connected by the Christadora building in Manhattan’s East Village. Milly and Jared reside at the heart of the novel as a young bohemian couple trying to make their way as artists in one of the most creative cities in the world. Closely tied to them is their adopted son Mateo, who struggles to navigate through his adolescence and early twenties, often numbing his pain with heroin.
Milly’s mother Ava is another key figure. As a successful public health official and bipolar disorder sufferer, her relationship with Milly is strained to say the least. However she later rejects the bureaucracy of the public health department and turns to the local community, dedicating her final years to caring for women with AIDs. As an example of the artfully interconnected narrative, one of these women happens to be Mateo’s birth mother, Ysabel Mendes.
Isy’s chapters focus on her years of campaigning. After being diagnosed with HIV, she realises that her experience as an ethnic minority HIV positive woman has previously been left out of the AIDs conversation and she could be the voice that many women need. Along with her friend and famed activist Hector Villanueva, she makes strides in preventing the spread of HIV and securing new drug treatments for sufferers.
Indeed the main thread Murphy weaves throughout this saga is that AIDs is more than just a disease that inflicts pain on individual sufferers; it can also be a social and political issue that intersects gender, sexuality, race and class. While these particular characters may be fictional, it is clear that a huge amount of research went into this novel – Ysabel and Hector represent the real activists that played a vital role in spreading awareness and lobbying government to bring about change during this period.
Given that this is a debut novel, it is incredibly exciting to see the way Murphy has combined compelling writing, wonderfully three-dimensional characters and a rich contextual background to create a truly important and memorable story.