If made up statistics are to be believed, most Canadians will read one novel this year. For the love of all that is terrific in reading… let this be your one novel. Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers is extraordinary. Okay. I’m not actually sure this would be the one novel I’d make you read. Ack! That’s a question for another post. But it’s really, really, really good.
I finished it – after several late nights reading into the wee hours – about a week ago, and at least once a day the full force of it comes back and grabs me, twists me up and I’m left, again, feeling such connection to its characters, such profound feeling from its narrative.
Set in both 2015 and 1985-8, the story follows a chosen-family of gay men in Chicago as AIDS enters their community and then thoroughly ravages it. Offering at once portraits of individual men as well as detailing the systematic state imposed inaction that exacerbated and enabled the crisis, the novel explores the impact of the disease on the individual, the community, and the country.
It’s far too simplistic to say this is a book about AIDS though. It is, but it’s more a book about mortality, how we live, how we take care of those we love (and those we once loved), how we grieve and remember, and the consequences to those in the present who carry who and what has been lost — and the role of art in all of it.
Art in the novel – the novel as art – is a mechanism to recover the stories of those lost, the insistence that the work of art allow is insufficient without the context around it, the urgent call that in viewing/reading/hearing you must ask more or see more and that even then your understanding will always be imperfect: the brilliant nested story of lost paintings, recovered through a gift donation to a museum; the layered present narrative of a photography show of men dead in their prime through government inaction and willful neglect; the novel itself.
Then skillful weaving of what it means to be a family, and who we turn to for care when we need it, the role of friends, genetic family, pets and strangers: a lost-found daughter and all the questions of what we inherit well beyond our genes – trauma, loss, guilt; a sister called to be saviour to a community; relationships that end and begin again through betrayal and loss.
Oh my. It’s really one of the better novels you could choose to spend some time with. I promise it will make you ache with worry for its protagonist, Yale. That you will think of him again and again, and that is the point, I suppose, to ask readers about what ghosts we remember, those we forget, those we valorize, demonize and why. What we could do better as individuals and as a collective to see and to act.
Okay, enough, enough. Read it already.