‘The Great Believers’ poignantly portrays long-term trauma of AIDS epidemic

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Grade: 4.5/5.0

“Aimer c’est du désordre … alors aimons!” translates to, “Love is disorder, so we love!” This is the thesis of “The Great Believers” by Rebecca Makkai, a novel that deals with the trauma of loss at the hands of the AIDS epidemic.

“The Great Believers” follows two stories, one in Chicago at the height of the AIDS epidemic and the other in 2015 Paris. Yet even with the decadeslong gap, these alternating timelines are part of the same story. In 1985, the disease is rapidly encroaching on Yale Tishman as well as his friends and loved ones. The novel opens with an alternative, celebratory funeral for Nico, the first of Yale’s intimate social circle to die of AIDS and also one of Yale’s first and closest friends in the LGBTQ+ community of Chicago. It’s Nico’s little sister Fiona whom the novel follows into contemporary Paris, the ghosts of the 1980s trailing in both her  and the narrative’s wake.

The novel is a compelling page turner, the plot quick in a way that begs to be read all at once. It is also a desperately sad story, as any story about the AIDS epidemic — a crisis that was sustained by a callous, purposeful lack of care from mainstream society — is wont to be. Unlike other well-known AIDS epidemic narratives set in New York City or San Francisco such as “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes” or “And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic,” “The Great Believers” takes place in Chicago. Through this setting, Makkai is able to give life to a community whose narrative is less often told, shining light on the struggles it faced.

While Makkai’s story undeniably falls under the genre of historical fiction, the story develops into both a love story and a ghost story. Each character’s actions and relationships are shaped by the people they have lost, or those they are soon to lose, with the devastating grief rattling the world as they previously understood it.

This phenomenon is highlighted in one of the early scenes of the novel. Yale, overwhelmed by the efforts to celebrate Nico’s life so soon after his death, escapes the party to go upstairs. When he emerges some time later, he finds the entire house abandoned. Though he briefly considers explaining the guests’ disappearance as a raid or some other type of emergency, Yale finds himself uncannily convinced that maybe the whole world has simply disappeared and left him behind. This scene highlights the anxiety threaded throughout the novel — that this epidemic will be an extermination, and worse, that no one seems to care that an entire group of people faces extinction.

As this anxiety manifests, the narrative becomes more and more haunted. One character notes “what a burden” it is “to be the one with the memory.” Fiona is also left with these memories, acting as the apex of each story and memory in the novel.

By following a character as she experiences the AIDS epidemic as well as how it affects her decades later, the story cohesively depicts the intergenerational impacts of trauma. The way by which the novel straddles various time periods lends the novel its page-turner quality while also making space for a nuanced portrayal of trauma.

Makkai gives an unflinching portrayal of the indiscriminate tragedy wrought by AIDS, leaving her readers as haunted as the characters themselves. Many of the most wrenching moments will be familiar to those well-versed in the narratives of the AIDS epidemic, but their familiarity in no way lessens their impact.

It is impossible to catalogue all the moments in this novel that feel akin to a gut punch, all the ghosts that are impossible to shake. “The Great Believers” inhabits the space between a beginning and the end. As haunting as it may be, the novel prefers to keep its ghosts around, understanding that it’s only when their stories live on that those who remember them can as well.

Danielle Hilborn covers literature. Contact her at [email protected].