A photograph of the cast of It's A Sin. Image: Netflix

Can't get enough? The cast of It's A Sin. Image: Channel 4

Since it aired on Channel 4, discussion about Russell T. Davies’s new drama It’s a Sin has been everywhere. The five-part drama follows a group of young people – four gay men and their straight friend Jill – living in London throughout the 1980s as their lives are changed irrevocably by the HIV/AIDS crisis.

It’s a joyful, devastating and deeply human story that, quite rightly, has left people eager to learn more about the HIV/AIDS crisis and the lives of LGBTQ+ people. Books, of course, offer the perfect way to do this. And while there are seminal playtexts such as Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and Randy Shilts’s controversial investigation And the Band Played On, the novels below also celebrate and explore life before, during and after the HIV/AIDS crisis.

Dancer from the Dance by Andrew Holleran

First published in 1978, Andrew Holleran’s novel about gay men living in New York offers a rare glimpse into a period post-Stonewall but pre-AIDS epidemic where queer freedom and potential seemed limitless. Centred on the lives of two gay men, the young, Adonis-like Malone and the cutting-but-fabulous Sutherland, who takes the younger man under his wing, it’s a charged and beautifully written exploration into the hedonistic, erotic and sanctified world of disco dancefloors, sexual liberation and 1970s New York City. More than that, it’s a reminder of the innate desire human beings have to be loved and to love in return.

The Swimming-Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst

Like Holleran’s novel, HIV and AIDS are absent Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming Pool Library and it’s imbued with a similar sense of sexual opportunity. Set in London in 1983, it follows William Beckwith, a wealthy and promiscuous young gay man, who strikes up an unlikely friendship with an aging aristocrat, Lord Charles Nantwich, who charges the younger man with writing his biography.

However, unlike Dancer from the Dance, Hollinghurst delves into Britain’s complicated relationship with homophobia, colonialism and repression, while highlighting the tension between the privileges afforded to those in the present and the costs paid by those in the past.

People in Trouble by Sarah Schulman

Sarah Schulman has documented the AIDS crisis since the 1980s, and in this novel, republished in the UK in 2019, she delves into the world of AIDS activism. Set in 1980s New York, we meet Kate and Peter, a middle-class couple, and Molly, a lesbian with whom Kate is having an affair. Molly disrupts Kate and Peter’s status quo, introducing Kate to the realities of AIDS.

Touching on themes of gentrification, fragile masculinity, activism (Schulman herself was a member of activist group Act Up and will publish Let The Record Show: A Political History of Act Up New York, 1987-1993 later this year) and privilege, it’s a novel that asks those to consider how their ambivalence makes them complicity in the evils of the world.

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

While watching It’s a Sin, I immediately thought of Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers, not because the two share similar plots (they do and they don’t), but because Makkai’s novel also asks the question that Davies’s drama does not: what were the lasting effects of living through the height of the AIDS crisis?

With two timelines, one in Chicago during the 1980s and another in modern-day Paris, the novel lays out the wreckage of the virus and its impact it has on a group of gay men and their straight friends in heartbreaking detail. Like Jill in It’s A Sin, The Great Believers has Fiona, the sister of a gay man who dies because of AIDS-related complications, and like Jill she provides a consistent presence amid so much loss.

But that comes at a cost, and Makkai’s novel deftly and sensitively examines the impact of surviving that time, both on Fiona’s life and the lives of those around her.

Christadora by Tim Murphy

Tim Murphy has spent most of his career reporting on the HIV/AIDS crisis, and he brings his wealth of knowledge to his novel Christadora, an epic and complex saga that weaves various narrative threads together over multiple timelines starting in the 1980s all the way to the 2020s.

At the heart of the novel is the Christodora, an apartment building in Manhattan’s East Village where many of the characters’ stories coalesce. There’s also an emphasis on the work of AIDS activists, who worked tirelessly to ensure that research funding was provided to combat the virus. And like The Great Believers, Murphy’s novel demonstrates the devastating ripple effect of the epidemic that can still be felt today.

Tales of the City series by Armistead Maupin

If your favourite aspect of It’s a Sin was the found family that Ritchie, Roscoe, Colin, Jill and Ash created for themselves, then you absolutely have to delve into Armistead Maupin’s decades-spanning Tales of the City series and the lives of the inhabitants of 28 Barbary Lane.

Maupin’s books were some of the first to deal with the AIDS epidemic, and while they might take a lighter approach than the other books on this list, they still pack an emotional punch (Babycakes, especially). However, they also promise a future for those living with HIV, while reminding LGBTQ+ people and their allies of the beauty in their chosen families. If It’s a Sin has left you feeling raw, Maupin’s books will provide the perfect salve for healing.

Full Disclosure by Camryn Garrett

Camryn Garrett’s YA novel, Full Disclosure, might be more contemporary than the other books on the list, but it’s a timely and important reminder of the stigma that still affects people who are living with HIV. With so little education about HIV made available in schools and many prejudices and misconceptions still commonplace, a book like Full Disclosure is essential reading.

It’s also gloriously sex-positive and fabulously inclusive, with characters of many different races, backgrounds and sexualities. And at the heart of it is a really lovely, heart-warming romance to get stuck into (and many, many musical theatre references).

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