THE GREAT BELIEVERS by Rebecca Makkai
You may feel that you don’t really want to read a 400+ page novel about the early years of the AIDS crisis in Chicago but, in fact, this book proves to be something of a page-turner.
This is due to the vivid, complex characters who quickly capture the reader’s interest. The other great strength of the novel is that it doesn’t take the predictable or sentimental narrative path. Expectations are aroused but Makkai surprises us, and sometimes to devastating effect. After all, this is a period when life for gay men was fraught with uncertainties and was all too precarious.
The novel has two narrative strands: one set in 1985 and based around Yale Gishman as his circle of friends begins to fall to the virus while a cache of 1920s paintings offer the prospect of a great triumph for his career at an art gallery.
The second strand centres around a close friend of Yale’s, Fiona, who lost her brother to the virus and, 30 years later, has also lost her daughter to a cult. After a sighting in Paris, Fiona travels there to track her down and re-establish contact.
Several characters straddle both narratives. Sometimes with this type of structure, one storyline can end up being more compelling than the other. Yet here, the chapters alternate and this lessens this problem but also drives the narrative towards a double climax. This is one of the best gay-themed novels published so far this year, with glowing endorsements from writers Garth Greenwell, Stephen McCauley and Rabih Alameddine.