Rebecca Makkai’s “The Great Believers” is a novel of enormous breadth and depth.
It opens with a haunting scene of a memorial service for Nico, who dies of AIDS in 1980s Chicago, when gay men were just beginning to be diagnosed and died quickly. In the 1980s chapters, the central character is Yale Tishman, a kind, sweet man involved in what he thinks is a monogamous relationship with Charlie Keene. The memorial service itself sets off a chain of events that propels the story to its inevitable conclusion.
Nico’s little sister Fiona, who in the 80s chapters is a minor character, moves to the forefront in 2015 as she travels to Paris in search of her estranged daughter. Fiona is the only one left from the group of Chicago friends, and because she was the one to care for many of the young men as they died, she is both strong and wounded. Her story is one of the left behind, of what to do when you’ve already given so much.
This is a novel about mortality because it would be impossible to talk about HIV and not mortality, but it’s more about the relationships of these young men, with each other and with the world at large. It’s impossible not to love these characters, and to hope beyond reason that a cure is discovered by the end of the novel. It’s also the story of the repercussions of the disease through time, because the fact of the matter is that people are still dying from AIDS, and their loved ones are still bearing witness to it.