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The Great Believers


The Great Believers

There may not be any guns or stoic generals, or bleak scenes set in muddy trenches, but make no mistake about it: Rebecca Makkai’s expansive and haunting new book, THE GREAT BELIEVERS, is a war novel. But instead of delving into the current war on terror or revisiting the wounds of Vietnam, Makkai explores another kind of war --- the war on AIDS in the 1980s, when the virus cut a devastating swath through gay communities across America.

The book opens in 1985 in Chicago, at a memorial service for Nico, recently dead of the disease. His friends, who the family has banned from the official funeral, have gathered at the home of Richard, a photographer, to celebrate his too-short life. There, we meet Yale Tishman, a development officer at the fictional Brigg Gallery at Northwestern University, and Fiona, Nico’s devoted younger sister and indefatigable caretaker to his friends.

Through Yale’s eyes, we’re drawn into the vibrant world of the city’s Boystown, a close-knit neighborhood that’s a welcoming enclave in an often-hostile society. But that idyllic world is starting to break apart as the epidemic spreads, a change that Yale must shakily navigate. In alternating chapters, the narrative jumps forward 30 years, when a middle-aged Fiona travels to Paris, where she hunts for her daughter Claire, who’s fallen under the spell of a mysterious cult. In France, she also reconnects with Richard, now a renowned artist, while also confronting the ghosts of her past and reckoning with what they mean for her future.

"THE GREAT BELIEVERS is exhaustively researched and an evocative love letter to Chicago in the 1980s."

References to the war on AIDS aren’t uncommon, but for those who didn't live through the dark times of the 1980s, who know the period only through history books or documentaries, it might be tempting to see the phrase as a mere rhetorical flourish. But Makkai makes it clear that what Chicago's LGBT community was experiencing (and what, by extension, was happening in similar communities across the U.S. and the world) was a literal war, with casualties, battles, survivors and all the emotional trauma that such a conflict entails. The only difference is that in her novel the enemies aren't a foreign army, but an indifferent president, a medical establishment that is at its best helpless and at its worst cruel, and the cold, calculating bureaucracy of insurance companies.

“I don’t know how it’s like anything other than war,” says Nora, an elderly woman (and Fiona’s great aunt) who spent her 20s as an artist’s muse in Paris, both before and after the First World War. Nora has agreed to donate a stash of priceless, previously unseen artworks --- paintings and drawings by Modigliani, Soutine and other lesser-known artists --- to the Brigg Gallery. But Nora is less concerned with preserving the works of famous artists than she is with sharing the work of those who were never noticed in the first place: “[W]hen someone’s gone and you’re the primary keeper of his memory --- letting go would be a kind of murder, wouldn’t it?” The pieces she cares most about aren’t the most valuable, but rather those created by her lover, a painter of little talent and even less historical importance.

The book’s title comes from a quote from Lost Generation chronicler F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Makkai draws a clear connection between Yale and Fiona’s losses in 1980s Chicago and the destruction of the Great War and the Spanish Flu 60 years earlier. What she has produced is an unflinching account of the strain of being a survivor, and the guilt that comes with it. Fiona’s own fractured relationship with her daughter is a direct consequence of the way she closed herself off after the heartbreak of watching her brother, his lover and his friends die, one by one. “What a burden… To be the one with the memory,” one character tells Fiona towards the novel’s end. But sharing those stories, Makkai suggests, can be a way of lessening that weight and forging new connections.

THE GREAT BELIEVERS is exhaustively researched and an evocative love letter to Chicago in the 1980s. Makkai has brought a vast cast of characters to life and given voice to their stories, portraying a health crisis that too many people ignored at the time and seem willing to forget now. The resulting book is frequently devastating, but also powerfully hopeful, committed to the idea that it’s possible to move beyond trauma and fashion a new life out of what is left in its wake.

Reviewed by Megan Elliott on June 22, 2018

The Great Believers
by Rebecca Makkai

  • Publication Date: June 4, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books
  • ISBN-10: 073522353X
  • ISBN-13: 9780735223530