The figurative language of Rebecca Makkai…

Reading time: Less than 2 minutes

I like to share interesting pieces of figurative language I encounter in my reading. I write today about a series of metaphors and similes from Rebecca Makkai…

I will read a novel because it wins awards. Because I’m curious. And because its theme or subject matter interests me.

The 2018 novel by Rebecca Makkai (pictured above), The Great Believers, hit all three categories. Highly recommended by the New York Times Book Review and a winner of the Andrew Carnegie Medal and the Stonewall Book Award, the book also addressed a topic near and dear to my heart — the AIDS epidemic. I lost a good friend to the disease in 1994. 

Initially, I found the book disappointing. I thought the writing was uneven and the plot not quite interesting enough. But by the time I hit the one-third point, Makkai won me over. She has vast reserves of emotional intelligence and her understanding of human motivation is remarkable. I also appreciated her use of figurative language.

Here are my favourite examples:

  • Fiona had one of the best faces for concern Yale had ever seen — her eyebrows hurried together, her lips vanished straight into her mouth — but he wondered how she had any emotion left to spare.
  • He felt like sobbing into her hair, but he didn’t. He’d been cultivating numbness all day, hanging onto it like a rope.
  • Being on an airplane, even in coach, was the closest an adult could come to the splendid helplessness of infancy.
  • There was a wheeze to her voice, as if she were squeezing her words down a narrow hallway.
  • But Arnaud (“You can call me Arnold,” he offered in perfect British English, as if she couldn’t handle a simple O sound) was like a freshly sharpened pencil, a pointed nose the primary feature of his small, dark face.
  • His skin, once warm and rich, was the color of a walnut shell.
  • [She was] the kind of woman who seemed made entirely of scarves.
  • Charlie had already won her over, in two sentences. It helped that his accent contained a top hat and monocle.
  • If he wasn’t at the office or at meetings, he was working at home, his Macintosh humming like a life support machine.
  • He was looking into the fridge like it held King Tut’s treasures.
  • The air around Yale had taken on a migraine density, a pink, oppressive haze.
  • The whole room felt like a soufflé that had just risen, like the slightest shake would destroy it.
  • He’d been away long enough to induce that wonderful coming-home-after-a-long-trip feeling, the way you’re hit with the smells of you own building, the dimensions of your own hallway, which have somehow readjusted themselves so the place feels dreamlike, off by a few vertiginous inches in every direction.

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on Feb. 21/19.

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