NOVEL
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

To see an epoch on both a political and personal level is the gift we are given by the book’s author, Rebecca Makkai.

To see an epoch on both a political and personal level is the gift we are given by the book’s author, Rebecca Makkai. Credit:

The Great Believers is the best kind of literary fiction: a true page-turner. I’m ashamed to say that I resisted reading it for a while, put off by a fear that the subject matter was too grim. And grim it is: the story documents the 1980s AIDS crisis which felled a generation of young men, hampered by the wilful disregard of the Reagan Administration. The virus spread just as gay rights were gaining traction, and individuals felt more freedom than ever before to live as they pleased.

To see an epoch on both a political and personal level is the gift we are given by the book’s author, Rebecca Makkai.

Chicago, the city in which the novel is set and a place of comparative refuge for gay men in the US at the time, is one of her many vividly realised characters, full of contradictions. Sometimes the city is a warm embrace of bawdy bars and drunken sympathy, and sometimes it’s just too bloody cold.

The other elements are equally convincing, sketched out with a judicious eye for identifying detail. Charlie, the editor of a gay newspaper, is the kind of guy who insists on giving speeches at other peoples’ birthday parties. Yale, his partner, is scrupulously honest in his dealings as a college administrator. This is sometimes to his own detriment; a subplot about a potential forgery of a Modigliani painting given as a gift to his university is a cracker.

I’ll say no more, because to do so would give away one of the novel’s many plot twists. But these surprises are not merely manipulative tools to keep you reading. The bends in the road of Makkai’s story underscore that history, when it happens, is not separate from our lives, but is instead within us, shaping a collective destiny we do not control.

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