The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai: fiction about Aids in 80s America

This book, The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai, is totally addictive. It is a saga set in two decades, the 1980s and 2015. It is about Aids in 80s America and the consequentces.

Chicago, 1985: Yale Tishman and his friends have no idea that their lives are about to be devastated by the AIDS crisis. Yale himself, working at an art gallery, is more concerned with the provenance of a group of paintings which might make his career. But as the decade unfolds, and the virus does its horrible work, they find themselves becoming spokesmen, activists, comforters, victims and destroyers.

In 2015, Fiona, the sister of Yale’s friend Nico, who died during that terrible decade, is in Paris, searching for her estranged adult daughter, who disappeared into a cult some years before. There, she reconnects with a figure from that time, and comes to realize that what seemed like a moment of crisis is still making itself felt thirty years later.

I remember the 1980’s well. In the UK tales of hundreds of men dying of an unknown disease took many months to arrive. Thereafter the story of AIDS is pretty well documented however I remember seeing adverts of huge tombstones. The ignorance of how the disease was transmitted was so inaccurate causing terrible heartache as people were treated like lepers.

The picture of Princess Diana shaking hands with an Aids sufferer was a game changer. She demonstrated that there was no risk of infection just from touching. There have been huge fundraisers to find a cure. So far there is no cure or vaccine; however, antiretroviral treatment can slow the course of the disease and may lead to a near-normal life expectancy.

I was not sure if I was going to enjoy this book as I have to like at least one character. However Yale broke my heart. His story, which I am sure is similar to thousands of other men of that time, was very emotive. The reader understands his anger, his shame, the intolerance and ignorance that he experiences.

As I continued to read, I found myself fully drawn in by the scale of ambition and the theme of the trauma of succeeding generations, and the ripple of consequences. I would love to read more books by this author as her ability to tell a story is exceptional.