The Great Believers

Rebecca Makkai

The Great Believers
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The Great Believers

Rebecca Makkai

In 1985, Yale Tishman, the development director for an art gallery in Chicago, is about to pull off an amazing coup: bringing 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, he finds his partner is infected, and that he might even have the virus himself. 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 epidemic, she finds herself finally grappling with the devastating ways the AIDS crisis affected her life and her relationship with her daughter. Yale and Fiona’s stories unfold in incredibly moving and sometimes surprising ways, as both struggle to find goodness in the face of disaster.

Review

The Great Believers opens in Chicago, 1985, with Yale Tishman attending the wake of Nico – the first of many in his group of friends to be felled by the AIDS epidemic. Yale is the development director for an art gallery and about to land an acquisition of modernist art that will make his career. The thrill of this professional accomplishment is tempered by Yale’s fears that he himself has contracted HIV.

The second chapter of the novel fast-forwards to 2015. Fiona, Nico’s little sister, is flying to Paris to track down her estranged daughter. This trip will force Fiona to come to terms with the ways in which bearing witness to the AIDS epidemic has shaped her life – with devastating results. This alternating chapter structure is consistent throughout the novel; it moves back and forth between Yale’s perspective in the late eighties/early nineties and Fiona’s in 2015.

Although seemingly only tenuously connected, the two narratives both explore the effects of living through an epidemic, and specifically the HIV/AIDS crisis. Yale is forced to contend with the imminent threat the virus poses to a gay man and Fiona must figure out a way to emotionally survive the trauma of living through the crisis that devastated her group of friends.

I knew going into this one it would be a harrowing read, but don’t let the gravity of the subject scare you away. This novel is immensely readable and, dare I say it, unputdownable. Rebecca Makkai brings hope, light and grace to an inevitably bleak and distressing history. This is accomplished primarily through the characters who are so fully realised you’ll walk away from this one feeling like you had met them in real life. It’s an emotional and unforgettable read for fans of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life and David France’s How To Survive A Plague.


Tristen Kiri Brudy works as a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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