Since it aired on Channel 4, discussion about Russell T. Davies’s new drama It’s a Sin has been everywhere. The five-part drama follows a group of young people – four gay men and their straight friend Jill – living in London throughout the 1980s as their lives are changed irrevocably by the HIV/AIDS crisis.
It’s a joyful, devastating and deeply human story that, quite rightly, has left people eager to learn more about the HIV/AIDS crisis and the lives of LGBTQ+ people. Books, of course, offer the perfect way to do this. And while there are seminal playtexts such as Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and Randy Shilts’s controversial investigation And the Band Played On, the novels below also celebrate and explore life before, during and after the HIV/AIDS crisis.
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
While watching It’s a Sin, I immediately thought of Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers, not because the two share similar plots (they do and they don’t), but because Makkai’s novel also asks the question that Davies’s drama does not: what were the lasting effects of living through the height of the AIDS crisis?
With two timelines, one in Chicago during the 1980s and another in modern-day Paris, the novel lays out the wreckage of the virus and its impact it has on a group of gay men and their straight friends in heartbreaking detail. Like Jill in It’s A Sin, The Great Believers has Fiona, the sister of a gay man who dies because of AIDS-related complications, and like Jill she provides a consistent presence amid so much loss.
But that comes at a cost, and Makkai’s novel deftly and sensitively examines the impact of surviving that time, both on Fiona’s life and the lives of those around her.
Christadora by Tim Murphy
Tim Murphy has spent most of his career reporting on the HIV/AIDS crisis, and he brings his wealth of knowledge to his novel Christadora, an epic and complex saga that weaves various narrative threads together over multiple timelines starting in the 1980s all the way to the 2020s.
At the heart of the novel is the Christodora, an apartment building in Manhattan’s East Village where many of the characters’ stories coalesce. There’s also an emphasis on the work of AIDS activists, who worked tirelessly to ensure that research funding was provided to combat the virus. And like The Great Believers, Murphy’s novel demonstrates the devastating ripple effect of the epidemic that can still be felt today.