The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

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The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

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Category: LGBT Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Megan Kenny
Reviewed by Megan Kenny
Summary: The Great Believers is a poignant, bittersweet novel, filled with complex characters and the messy intricacies of relationships. Makkai has illuminated the horrors of the AIDS crisis and its aftermath with grace and loving humour. This is an important book, thought-provoking and beautifully executed.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 432 Date: July 2018
Publisher: Fleet
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0708899137

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The Great Believers follows a group of friends whose lives are devastated by the AIDS crisis in Chicago during the late 1980’s. Beginning in 1985, the reader follows Yale and his friends as they come to terms with the increasingly virulent illness spreading throughout their community, alongside their demonisation at the hands of a conservative America. Thirty years later Fiona, a devoted friend to Yale, is searching for her estranged daughter on the streets of Paris, trying to rebuild a relationship beset by memories and old hurt.

Makkai manages to weave together distinct voices, timelines and stories with such dexterity that it is never difficult to follow the progression of the characters' lives. There is a lot of symbolism in her work, with the AIDS epidemic being linked to the horror of war, the bereavement of those left behind to mourn, shell shocked and bereft with no way to conceptualise the grief of losing peers on mass. Makkai also references the 2015 Paris attacks, an apt metaphor for the chaos of Fiona’s life, left hollowed out by loss and self-destruction, desperate to reconnect with her daughter and herself.

Given the subject matter, this is never going to be an easy, light read however Makkai has managed to bring humour, love and grace to such a bleak distressing point in history. Never shying away from the stark reality of the AIDS crisis, the confusion and misery of a virus which spread like wildfire through the city, reducing Fiona and those who remain to custodians of a graveyard, Makkai has produced a vivid, thought-provoking narrative.

The Great Believers is a powerful, moving and gripping book which reduced me to tears. The sense of sadness and injustice is palpable when reading about those left to die in wretched hospital wards, mourning a life they wouldn’t live to see. In 2015, Fiona’s trauma and the impact this has had on her relationships, particularly with her daughter, is heart breaking and demonstrates the dangers of living in the past, of allowing the ghosts of our memories to cloud our present. Seeing the scope of death across one small subsection of Chicago, within one particular group of friends is enough to remind the reader of the devastation caused in the 1980s by the AIDS crisis. As the book progresses and moves into the early 1990s there is a sense of hope, however tentative, as medicine and attitudes progress although there remains the hollow ache of sadness as those around Fiona and Yale succumb to their illness.

Makkai is never judgemental, nor avoidant of the reality of the AIDS crisis, she remains empathically devoted to presenting the struggle of those who fought for legislation change, for treatment, for recognition and for survival. Focusing on the life of Fiona, a bystander to the experience, a curator of death and guardian of the memories of her friends, so often abandoned by prejudiced family members, is an interesting perspective. Told in alternate chapters, the reader sees the trauma of the 1980s from Yale’s perspective, then witnesses the aftermath from Fiona’s in 2015, still haunted by the spectres of those she lost in youth and beset by guilt about the impact this has had on her daughter.

Makkai touches on several important themes in The Great Believers including love, loss, sexuality, motherhood and relationships. By drawing attention to such a seismic event in recent history, Makkai has written an important book, one which is sure to leave a poignant ache in the heart of the reader and give them pause to consider the strength of love, the importance of relationships and the damage left behind by loss and grief.

For those of you interested in reading more by Rebecca Makkai, you could try The Borrower or The Hundred-Year House.

Buy The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai at

Buy The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai at


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