The Great Believers
I approached this one with trepidation. Set partially in 1985 – 1990 in Chicago’s gay scene, it deals with the early years of the AIDS epidemic and the devastation it caused within that community. My first job after high school was delivering meals in a hospital and although the gay scene in Halifax was tiny there were still a handful of AIDS patients at that time, placed on the cancer ward because the hospital didn’t know what else to do with them. Amongst a flood of ignorance and misinformation, many of my co-workers refused to deliver trays to these patients, so I found myself regularly getting called in for an evening shift and working only one ward (about 25 beds out of 900). I got to know a lot of these men in their last days, and with many of my close friends also being gay men, it was terrifying to watch.
The Great Believers follows Yale in the 1980s as he watches his friends die one by one, supported by his friend Nico’s younger sister, Fiona. The book then jumps to 2015 as Fiona arrives in Paris in search of her estranged daughter. The work jumps back and forth between time frames and while it first seems as if the book is two separate, disjointed story lines, things come together and we discover that Fiona, jokingly referred to as “Saint Fiona of Chicago” for her support of her brother and many of his friends as they died carries her own trauma and PTSD which has affected her life and that of those around her.
Makkai creates a parallel between the AIDS epidemic and the Great War/Spanish Flu epidemic with the storyline of Nora, Fiona’s great aunt, who was a model in Paris before and after the first world war, and who has valuable artwork that Yale tries to secure for the gallery where her works. Nora lost many of her friends and colleagues, either at the front or from the flu, or other related ways (such as suicide) after the fact.
Although the story appears to be about Yale, Fiona is actually the central character, both in her involvement with her boys in the 80s and in 2015 as she goes searching for her daughter and discovers that she’s never really let go of the trauma of the 1980s; she still lives and works in Chicago at a charity shop that donates proceeds to AIDS charities even though most of the people she loved are gone.
But the world has changed in 30 years. Some of the men she knew came through the epidemic unscathed (no glove, no love, people!), some who were believed to be dead show up healthy and robust thanks to the advances in drug therapy in the late 1990s/early 2000s. And Fiona realizes that she’s the only one who hasn’t let go and moved on. And that her dedication to the memory of her boys has destroyed other, current — and incredibly important — relationships.
The Great Believers has been picked up for development by Amy Poehler, so we can probably expect to see the book made into a series within the next couple of years. Still worth reading in the interim though, especially if you lived through those awful years and are still carrying those memories around with you.