Early in Rebecca Makkai’s stylish and ambitious new novel, one of her protagonists, Fiona, is pondering life in her 50s. She feels tired, guilty. Everyone she loved has “died or left”. She is living “after the bloodbath”. The wartime imagery is surely deliberate, though the setting is Paris in 2015, and she’s looking back at the Aids epidemic in Chicago that claimed her elder brother Nico, and many friends. “There had been a holocaust, a mass murder of neglect and antipathy,” she feels. It’s a timely reminder that living through crisis, whether personal or political – and sometimes both – sends shockwaves across generations.
The Great Believers begins in 1985 with Nico’s funeral. His friend Yale speaks of “entire apartment buildings devastated”, the language another suggestion that the disease tearing through excitable lives is akin to a targeted attack in wartime. And while Makkai herself is too young to have lived as an adult through the years of all-consuming apprehension that characterised Aids in the 1980s, there’s a huge commitment here to telling a truthful story of what it was like to do so. The sections set 30 years later in Paris, where Fiona is searching for her estranged daughter, offer a sense of context, nuance and poignancy too. These are absorbing individuals to care about, rather than hedonistic caricatures painted in broad brushstrokes.
And yet calling The Great Believers a sweeping chronicle of the Aids era isn’t quite correct. For starters, over a million of people still carry the disease in the US alone. But more intriguingly, Makkai began the process of writing her third novel with a completely different focus – it was initially about an artist’s model, Nora, living in Paris between the first and second world wars.
Nora’s remarkable life ends up as a subplot here as Yale tries to secure her art collection for his gallery, but it’s reflective of a piece of work that never settles anywhere for long. It feels fidgety in places, but thrillingly so.
Interspersed between urbane sections discussing art history, value and provenance, are the chapters set in Paris in 2015, which include the Bataclan attacks and the merest hint of a detective story when Fiona hires a private investigator to find her daughter. Indeed, there’s a lot going on in The Great Believers, and while Makkai doesn’t always manage to make all the plates spin perfectly, she remains thoughtful and consistent throughout about the importance of memory and legacy, and the pain that can come with survival.
Grief echoes through the ages. “When someone’s gone and you’re the primary keeper of his memory,” Nora says to Yale about a loss she suffered decades before, “letting go would be a kind of murder, wouldn’t it? I was stuck with all that love.”
It’s a striking moment in a deeply affecting novel that is full of death, yet simultaneously spirited and hopeful about love and life.
• The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai is published by Fleet (£14.99). To order a copy for £12.74 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
Source: The Guardian