The Great Believers

The Great Believers

Recent history is a strange turn of phrase, no? Because in most instances, when said, what someone is actually referring to is something that happened so recently that people are still very much living in, and wading through, the aftermath.

The AIDS crisis is recent history. And what’s more, for a great many people, my own family included, it is a recently lived history.

It only occurred to me latterly—and naively so, I admit—that the generations that have come after mine remain, for the most part, blissfully unaware as to the horrors of, frankly, a great deal of our recently lived history (and history in general, I suppose.). And so, in thinking more about it, I also realised that there aren’t all that many novels—or, on the whole, and compared with other similar ravages on humanity, books at all—that weave a story through the AIDS crisis.

When we read about hardships and tragedies and other like earth-shakers, the thing we often connect with most easily is the human element of the experience. The humanity—the life, the loss, the fundamental similarities that shape and make up us all. But, for some stories, realising the life instead of just telling of a tragedy can be a difficult literary hurdle to clear.

But not for Rebecca Makkai.

Makkai’s glorious new novel The Great Believers clears that hurdle with ease and with grace, with compassion and caring. She has written a stunningly good book, one of my favourite reads of this year, and perhaps even ever, and I’m here to implore you to read it.

In 1985, Yale Tishman, the development director for an art gallery in Chicago, is about to pull off an amazing coup, bringing in an extraordinary collection of 1920s paintings as a gift to the gallery. Yet as his career begins to flourish, the carnage of the AIDS epidemic grows around him. One by one, his friends are dying and after his friend Nico's funeral, the virus circles closer and closer to Yale himself. Soon the only person he has left is Fiona, Nico's little sister.

Thirty years later, Fiona is in Paris tracking down her estranged daughter who disappeared into a cult. While staying with an old friend, a famous photographer who documented the Chicago crisis, she finds herself finally grappling with the devastating ways AIDS affected her life and her relationship with her daughter. The two intertwining stories take us through the heartbreak of the eighties and the chaos of the modern world, as both Yale and Fiona struggle to find goodness in the midst of disaster.

I don’t want to say too much about the specifics of the story because, honestly, you’ll be hooked before you've even finished the first chapter and I think it’s best to go into the read knowing less than more about it. But what I will say is this: The Great Believers tells an expansive story, one that stretches over not just a large cast of characters, but over a substantial stretch of time, as well.

Our protagonist, I suppose, is Yale—art-lover, friend to many and especially to Fiona; Fiona, who’s our other main character. Fiona is a survivor, an advocate, a mother. She is complex, and she is worn down. She has lived. And it’s all of that living that, I think, which makes The Great Believers such an outstanding book.

What Makkai has written is a story about people, about love and family, life, and about loss, and thrumming underneath all of that living is an ominous sense of this awful, incomprehensibly terrible thing: AIDS. But the book is not about that—not just that. It is about the lives that AIDS stole—not just literally, but the parts of people that were eroded by what they lived through, who they lost, and the hatred and division they had to fight their way through.

Makkai tells us a story about people—about loveable people, faulted people, people who feel real. She paints right to the edges of her literary canvas, spoiling her readers with details and context.

The Great Believers is a quietly devastating story about an unimaginably difficult time in recent history—a pocket in time that isn’t focused on or spoken (or written) about nearly enough. Because understanding the heart behind the sadness—the headlines, the clinical phrases and medical jargon—is paramount to keeping not only the memory of those lost to AIDS alive, but also remembering those who fought courageously hard to win rights and acknowledgement, support and understanding, and those who are still living through the aftermath—be it as a survivor or as someone still in the fight.

In The Great Believers, Rebecca Makkai has written a beautiful, timeless, and tremendously good book. Read it, and remember.


The Great Believers 
by Rebecca Makkai 
Modern & Contemporary Fiction 
Paperback, 432 pages 
Little Brown Book Group 
R.R.P.: $32.99 (AUD)


Words | Erin Stobie