Everyone’s dying in The Great Believers — or at least it feels that way. The AIDS epidemic has hit Boystown, the Chicago queer community kept on the city’s fringes and left to party, love, and mourn in the few sacred spaces they can call their own. The neighborhood consists of just a few blocks off Lake Michigan’s coast, but the novel, generous and rich as it is, can hardly be confined to a half-mile radius. It’s expansive — a vast landscape of characters and relationships, tragedies and triumphs, steeped in the long shadow of trauma.
Author Rebecca Makkai spikes a sadly familiar historical narrative with kaleidoscopic compassion. Her novel begins with a spirited wake: a gathering of close friends trying to pay tribute to a dead man who had no patience for the funereal. His only present relative is his 21-year-old sister, Fiona; she bonds with his circle and is welcomed into their chosen family. She’s close to Yale, an art gallery development director much older than her. The novel works between two timelines: the late ’80s, in which Yale’s friends (including his partner) keep getting sick, and 2015, when an aged Fiona tracks down her estranged daughter in Paris.
Makkai is intuitive, evading traps of sentimentality. She leans on her established strengths — realistic characters, emotional complexity — and in the context of this ’80s milieu, their potential is bracingly realized. Her relaxed prose flows; her fascination with human behavior enhances the book’s vivid ensemble. Makkai’s writing even assumes an effortless sweep, plunging readers into a saga of mesmerizing intimacy.
As in her last novel, the gothic The Hundred-Year House, Makkai, a Chicago native, introduces her hometown like a friend giving the insider’s tour: the bedrooms left open for late-night hookups, the secret spots perfect for wasting the days away, the cramped quarters where friends live — or lived, once. Makkai has a real feel for grief, achingly describing the city she’s long known inside and out as it’s suddenly permeating loss. You don’t just see the ghosts of her Believers — you spend time with them, learn their flaws and virtues and darkest fears, cry at their funerals right alongside those who’ve known them for decades.
As for who lingers longest, that’d still be Yale and Fiona. Their journeys initially seem a tad too detached, vignettes linked largely by the world they once shared. But the book’s grander scope comes into focus. Yale pursues an elderly art donor — a relative of Fiona’s — who confides in him about the deaths that surrounded her WWI-era youth; he’s confronted with the deep pain of merely living, of carrying on as everything meaningful around him disappears. Fiona, as she grows older, cares for infected gay men who can’t care for themselves anymore, and watches them pass on, body by body. She inherits an agony that informs her parental failings — a legacy traced by Makkai with lucidity, as well as ample melancholy. But if The Great Believers is heartbreaking, it isn’t quite dire. Its rousing final pages take Fiona to the art show of an old friend of Yale’s as she encounters a film featuring the men she, Yale, and so many others loved and lost — “boys with hands in pockets, waiting for everything to begin.” A–