A review of The Pink Book by Henry Von Doussa

Reviewed by Leila Lois

The Pink Book
by Henry Von Doussa
Cloud of Magellan Press
28 April 2022, ISBN: 9780987403780, hardback, $75aud

Henry von Doussa’s website – www.henryvondoussa.com

Hares and Hyenas Bookshop https://www.hares-hyenas.com.au/

Matilda bookshop https://www.matildabookshop.com.au/

‘In a complicated, hard-to-live-up-to way, simplicity was what my parents valued. Simplicity and dedication.’

Simplicity and dedication are two apt words to sum up The Pink Book, a collection of images and memoirs from Henry Von Doussa. The book is a series of personal essays and collages bound in an exquisite coffee-table book; it bursts with colour and nuance yet simplicity and dedication to the characters and stories that lie within. Interwoven with touchingly personal stories of childhood and young adulthood and philosophies on life, it is a challenge to put The Pink Book down …I devoured the lion’s share of the book in my garden, smiling and gasping as I greedily turned the pages. 

Perhaps the pivotal page in this beautifully crafted book is a photograph of a heart-shaped piece of paper, printed with the words of Sandra Bernhard: 

Love is the only shocking act left on the face of the earth. Eroticism, murder, betrayal, starvation, torture, war, all pale in the face of love…

Several acts of personal chagrin and tragedy are explored in the story of Von Doussa’s upbringing, namely: bereavement, suicide and violence, yet there is a great tenderness and pervading sense of love throughout even his most grim prose. When writing of his encounters with the ‘AIDS crisis’ in Sydney in early 1990s, he explains the complexity of his survivor guilt: 

What it was like to be hatching my identity in the crosshairs of risk and fear rather than pleasure and opportunity, I held close. HIV was at the centre of a harsh matrix.

Von Doussa certainly maps his story in such a way as to capture the incredible juxtapositions and contradicting times he, like many of us, has lived through, and in so doing, create a world of pathos and colour for the reader to enter, away from the black and white of limiting world-views. In one passage, he describes how the French philosopher, Roland Barthes, posited that to scrutinise a person and their story in order to dissect them rationally is as futile as a child dismantling a clock in order to understand the vastness of time; there is so much of a person, their stories, inherited and actual and the context in which they are raised that confound simplistic understandings. Perhaps the most fascinatingly intricate character in Von Doussa’s narrative is that of his mother, Joanna. He writes of her enormous love for him and his siblings, which was present in the cream buns and lemonade hand-made, yet a fragility is apparent, as she undergoes archaic shock therapies to ‘cure’ her depression. The description of this treatment, and some of the doctrines of the Church which was in the background of Von Doussa’s childhood are examples of the way he is able to accentuate humanity in the most brutal of incidents, reminding us that our adversities and our struggles, more than our successes, grow that most shocking act of love within us. 

The collage portraits of his mother are some of the most stunning in the book, as she is photographed black and white in her wedding dress with various iterations: some with corset and stockings, tape over her mouth and leather gloved hands tied behind her back. They speak to the ties and pressures she was under, perhaps we all are under over the course of our lives, and draw the eye in. 

The Pink Book follows a quest to lean towards, even yearn for a radical understanding of love and compassion despite the violence of history and the pain of the past. A perfect passage highlighting this is the below:

What we drag forward from the last retards us. When I was a child, my grandmother told my sister that if you place a piece of wedding cake under your pillow you will dream of the man you are to marry, and when we made apple pies with her she taught us to peel the green apples so the peel remained in one long string and then to toss it over our shoulder; whatever letter it resembled when it hits the kitchen floor will be the first letter of your husband or wife’s name, she said. There was always an expectation that we would be happily coupled, married. That somehow without inoculation, we would be immune to the foibles and complications of power and desire, of hope and history. It was a fantasy that never came true.

Ritual and convention confronts the messiness of desire and freedom in this most prepossessing yet thought-provoking coffee-table book. 

About the reviewer: Leila Lois is a dancer and writer of Kurdish and Celtic heritage who has lived most of her life in Aotearoa. In her poems, Leila explores a personal sense of origin that, like the ocean, binds several landscapes and times, coming back to the idea that a timeless, boundless love pervades. Her publishing history includes Southerly Journal, Djed Press, NoD Literary Journal, Honey Lit Journal, Mayhem Journal, Lite Lit One, Bent Street Journal and Delving into Dance. Find out more at: https://dialogicaldance.wordpress.com or at Twitter: leilaboos