BOOK REVIEW: The Great Believers

by Rebecca Makkai

They were walking every day through streets where there had been a holocaust, a mass murder of neglect and antipathy.”

Believers picI remember vividly that bleak period in the early 1980s when a spectrum of bizarre but fatal conditions started afflicting gay men. The tabloids were in their element, describing the mystery illnesses as a ‘Gay Plague’ while rallying their readers to demand all homosexuals be deported somewhere remote, away from ‘decent people’. As religious leaders proclaimed the outbreak was a sign of retribution from whichever deity they promoted, flustered politicians attempted to avert panic by insisting the ‘general public’ need not concern itself with a ‘gay disease’. Young men suffering with illnesses like Kaposi’s sarcoma were said to ‘deserve whatever they got’ and were accused of being a drain on the NHS, then hospital staff started refusing to treat them for fear of catching something.

Because of ignorance and indifference, the LGB community (the T had not been added at that point) was all but abandoned and left to take care of itself while a pandemic spread unimpeded by those in authority. It was a shameful chapter in our history, and one that I hope will never be repeated for any reason.

My memories, of course, are of a time when HIV/AIDS – or human immunodeficiency virus infection and acquired immune deficiency syndrome – first arrived in the UK. Rebecca Makkai’s new novel is set in Chicago, primarily in and around East Lakeview’s Boystown neighbourhood, which was the first officially recognized gay village in the United States.

We are taken back to 1985, when Yale Tishman, an art gallery development director is on the brink of acquiring a remarkable collection of 1920s paintings and letters for his institution. Yet at the very moment his career begins to blossom, his personal life falls apart. AIDS is decimating Chicago’s gay community and his friends are dying one after another. His life has gone from a brief phase of great joy, freedom and camaraderie to an unending round of bad news, caring for the sick and attending funerals.

Thirty years later, Yales’ old friend Fiona is in Paris attempting to track down her adult daughter who has recently left a cult and had a baby. She stays in the home of an acquaintance who, like her, was a front-line fighter in the early years of the illness. It is here she finds herself confronting memories, personal trauma and the possible effect living with such an abundance of grief had on her only child.

We swing back and forth between the ’80s and 2015, as history plays out in the background, from the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster to the Bataclan massacre, and as Yale and Fiona attempt to find some hope among the human detritus.

The Great Believers is a tribute to those who nursed and lost loved ones during the early years; the people who suffered with and died from AIDS related illnesses while being treated as pariahs; and the few who survived long enough to receive life-extending antiretrovirals. As a novel it is compelling and affecting. Makkai’s research is exhaustive but unobtrusive, thus the lives of her well-developed characters leave one oscillating between feelings of desolation and hope, outrage and empathy. Several reviewers have accused the book of being overlong, and in parts, that may be so – but it is a miniscule gripe in a work of such magnitude.

Makkai’s story centres on one city, but it was a similar scenario throughout the developed world. These days the greatest number of people infected with HIV live in sub-Saharan Africa, resulting in the continued deaths of untold thousands each year. There have been over 35 million humans wiped out since AIDS was first identified in the early 1980s. One wonders how many of them would still be alive today were it not for discrimination and wilful blindness on the part of our leaders?

It’s always a matter, isn’t it, of waiting for the world to come unravelled? When things hold together, it’s always only temporary.”

Many thanks to Little, Brown Book Group UK for providing an advance review copy of this title.

Categories: LGBTQ

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15 replies

  1. Fantastic review, Paula! I have this to read, and it sounds like one I will enjoy. I loved how you sad that even if it is overly long, that is a small gripe for such a wonderful read. Another I need to make time for!

    • Thank you, Jennifer. I’m not a particularly fast reader, so it took me a while to complete as I didn’t want to skim. I found this book powerful because I lived through the era, but hopefully younger readers will take something from it, too.

  2. absolutely stunning review!

  3. Wow. An incredible sounding novel. Thank you so much for written such a powerful review, Paula! I don’t know if I would have been able to push on through such challenging content! It’s always extra powerful when these sorts of books pull up personal memories. What drew you to this novel, in particular?

    • Thank you so much, Jackie. It was a harrowing novel in parts but so well written. I suppose I was drawn by the subject matter having known people effected by AIDS/HIV and also having lost a very dear friend to this horrible thing in 1990. Although the novel was set in Chicago, it was a similar story across the UK. A whole generation of young men disappeared overnight. However, as in any tragedy or disaster, you see the worst and best of people, so it’s also about friendship and love.

  4. A really powerful and interesting review. I think it must be a particularly interesting book because it is set in the Windy City. Lots of texts about similar topics might be set in New York or California? The gay village in Chicago may be missed by visitors who are unfamiliar with the culture of the place. Chicago seems a down-to-earth and working class city on the surface and the gay scene/ history may not be obvious to people stumbling around the parks, bars and Dunkin’ Donuts etc. so it’s good to know it’s there.

    • Thank you, John. That’s exactly what I thought. Virtually every novel (or non-fictional account) I’ve read about the early days of AIDS in the USA has been set in New York. I knew very little about Chicago and was quite surprised to learn its LGBT+ neighbourhood was the first officially recognised gay village in the country.

  5. Those early days when Aids/HIV came to the public’s attention certainly tested people’s capacity for understanding. So sad that it took Princess Diana to hold the hand of a man who was dying from this condition to get people to start thinking that their fears were unfounded. This is clearly an emotionally challenging book to read but sounds like it is very rewarding too

  6. Brilliant review, Paula. It brought back memories, particularly an atmospheric television ad AIDS campaign which featured the grim reaper in a bowling alley, bowling down men, women and children. There was an outcry, too graphic, etc, but it shook up the complacency and acknowledged what was happening.

    • Thank you, Gretchen. We had a similar sort of public information film on TV (showing a tombstone): ‘Don’t die of ignorance!’ I’m pretty sure the actor John Hurt did the voiceover – but that didn’t appear until about 1986, which was way too late in the day!


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