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Book Review: The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

I finished The Great Believers last weekend and it’s still going through my mind.

I’d picked it up after watching It’s A Sin the week before, something else I keep thinking about. The channel 4 drama depicts the lives of a group of gay men and their friends living through the AIDS crisis in London. It’s the best programme I’ve seen in a long time. Through watching that, I was struck by how little I knew about what happened in the 80s. 

I was born in 1985; the HIV/AIDS crisis is not something I’ve been taught about or that I knew much about, which probably says a lot.

So, after watching that drama, I remembered someone had recommended The Great Believers to me and that it had been sitting on my kindle for a couple of months.

The Great Believers is set in Chicago in 1985 and in present day Paris (well, 2015).

From the back…

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 story starts in 1985 with Yale and his boyfriend Charlie preparing for a memorial service for their friend Nico – Fiona’s older brother. 

Yale talks about whole apartment buildings being devastated, the fear in the city, more of his friends getting sick, the many, many memorial services.

In 2015, Fiona, is grappling with guilt, she lives with the aftereffects of the crisis everyone she’s loved had “died or left”

“They meant well, all of them. How could she explain that this city was a graveyard? That they were walking every day through streets where there had been a holocaust, a mass murder of neglect and antipathy, that when they stepped through a pocket of cold air, didn’t they understand it was a ghost, it was a boy the world had spat out?” Rebecca Makkai

In the 80s she took on the role of caring for her friends as they died. Something that’s had a huge impact on her life and her relationships ever since, particularly with her daughter Claire.

In Paris she stays with an old friend Richard Campo, a photographer who made his name photographing the AIDS pandemic in the 80s. Surrounded by memories and stories, she reflects on the impact suffering so much loss at such a young age has had on her.

Fiona’s story is a striking a look at memory, legacy and the pain that comes being the only one to survive.

In 1985, Fiona’s aunt Nora is wanting to give Yale and his new gallery a series of paintings from famous artists she knew in the 1910’s – like Fiona, the men Nora knew and was friends with had died at the outbreak of war, she was the keeper of their stories and memory, as Fiona became many years later.

“But when someone’s gone and you’re the primary keeper of his memory—letting go would be a kind of murder, wouldn’t it? I had so much love for him, even if it was a complicated love, and where is all that love supposed to go? He was gone, so it couldn’t change, it couldn’t turn to indifference. I was stuck with all that love.” Rebecca Makkai

But it’s Yale’s story I really followed. 

He struck me as naïve and bullied by Charlie in the early parts. He had a deep love for those around him, he doesn’t want Fiona to become his carer too. It’s his eyes we see the fear of the AIDS crisis through, he talks about friends who are in denial, those who believe a cure will be found any day, how boy’s town has become a ghost town. The different attitudes towards testing – 1985 was the first year that blood testing for infection became available but there was resistance to it. Yale’s friends have differing views around getting tested. There’s concerns over reliability and if it was really anonymous, alongside “Do I really want to know?”.

It’s Yale who we read about becoming sicker and sicker, the awful physical symptoms and the emotional impact the pandemic has on him throughout – dealing with grief and worrying for yourself.

It touches on attitudes towards gay men in the 80s, Fiona reflects on how no one would touch her brother while he was dying alone in hospital, she’s angry at her parents who cut Nico off when they found out he was gay but then took charge of his funeral and banned his friends and his lover from attending. 

It’s a book that shows how much indifference there was to AIDS, the government remained unconcerned as thousands died. Insurance companies refusing to pay for claims so many couldn’t afford to access the care they needed and the pharmaceutical companies making money out of the crisis.

But it’s also a book about love and friendship. The friends supporting each other, making sure no one was alone, that they felt loved and cared for. 

It’s an important story to tell, there still doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of material around the AIDS crisis that puts it at the centre of the narrative. 

Interestingly in the author’s note, Makkai talks about researching this book and not being able to find a whole of information of the AIDS crisis in Chicago – there was an estimated 600 cases by the end of 1986 alone, spending by the city authorities was $654 per diagnosed case with nothing set aside for any future cases (SOURCE: Chicago Tribune).

The Great Believers – like It’s a sin – manages to tell a poignant story. It balances the facts with characters you care about. You’ll learn something but be moved at the same time. You’ll understand how negligent Governments were and how that negligence ravaged communities, friendships and families. 

It’s summed up perfectly by the description of videos that have been saved from the 80s of Yale and his friends. A snapshot of the group together having fun and just being, with no idea of what is hurtling towards them.

It’s both beautiful and sad. 

radiosarahc View All

Journalist, writer, traveller, music lover, collector of hats, news addict, bookworm

5 thoughts on “Book Review: The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai Leave a comment

  1. 1985 was the year I really became aware of how serious the pandemic was- this may sound silly, but everyone in my class at primary school was obsessed with Dynasty, and, when Rock Hudson pulled out of the programme and it was later announced that it was because he was seriously ill with AIDS, it really hit us. The moment in It’s A Sin when Colin’s mum didn’t understand what was wrong with him, and the doctor tried to explain by saying that it was the disease that killed Rock Hudson, really struck a chord with me. The book sounds very interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh Colin 😭
      It’s silly I was aware of the pandemic but not really if that makes any sense.
      It’s a really good book especially the idea of what it’s like to be the one to survive x

      Liked by 1 person

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