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16th June
2011
written by Steph

If I told you that while reading The Brief History of the Dead I had flashbacks to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road AND Jose Saramago’s Blindness, would that intrigue you or make you go running for the hills? I think my instinct would be to flee, since both of those books are so harrowing, thus those two allusions might not be the best, and yet there is no denying that I kept thinking of them as I read. I suppose that on the surface there are some similarities between the two and so the vague sense of déja vu that I experienced is not so ridiculous, but I will say that to those of you who are thinking of hightailing it out of here and reading about some fluffy beach reads instead, despite the company The Brief History of the Dead might keep, it’s really not a scary/super sad/depressing/horrifying read at all. Promise! In this book, Kevin Brockmeier takes the oft-proclaimed platitude that those who die are not truly dead so long as they can live on in the memories of others and makes it real. The world that he envisions is actually split into two: there is the plain of existence that we all know, populated with those who live and breathe; and then there is another place, the City, that is filled with all the people who once walked among us but have since departed. So long as there is at least one person on Earth who harbors a memory of them, even if it is lodged in the darkest recess of the mind, these “souls” will live on in the City. Rumor has it that a place exists beyond the City, but one only transitions to that place after all who knew them has died, and no one has ever returned to report back, and besides, the City churns with new arrivals each and every day so it is hard to keep track of where everyone winds up. Suddenly, however, the City begins to shrink, its population vanishing, people disappearing never to be seen again. As the City begins to tighten its perimeters and the populace dwindles, rumors begin to emerge of a worldwide plague back on Earth… Parallel to this story in which we meet various inhabitants of the City through alternating chapters, we track the story of Laura Byrd, a woman who has traveled to the wilds of Antarctica to conduct research for the Coca Cola Corporation. As chaos and death sweeps through the civilization she left behind, Laura finds herself struggling to survive in the harshest and most barren landscape on the planet. When she finds herself abandoned and alone in a failing shelter, Laura decides to make a harrowing trek to another station in search of supplies and safety. Throughout her journey, readers will find themselves wondering what might happen if Laura does not succeed. Given that synopsis, I think the parallels with Blindness (sudden mysterious plague causes downfall of civilization) and The Road (person must journey across a dangerous landscape with nebulous probability of success lying at the end) are quite evident. But of course, The Brief History of the Dead, is very much its own, unique story. I really loved the way Brockmeier tackled the notion of “life after death” and made it literal. The people who populate the City are so vibrant and real, that as a reader, it is so easy to completely buy into the idea that (as Albus Dumbledore says to Harry in the first Harry Potter book) “to the well-organized mind, death is but the next adventure.” I thought it was incredibly clever to essentially imbue memory with the power to give (and also take away) life. I am a big fan of books that explore the nature of memory and the role that it plays in our lives and relationships, so it was nice to read a book that so elegantly emphasized its importance. As I mentioned in my last review, it can be really difficult to implement the dual narrative well, but I do think that Brockmeier does a good job of that here. At first I wasn’t entirely sure which storyline I found more interesting (always a worry when you don’t a have a single, fluid storyline), but by the end I did feel that the two narratives played off of one another really well. It definitely was one of those stories that felt a bit like a mystery, with portions clicking into place the more you read. Everything was revealed in time, and I personally really like it when tiny things that seem like throwaway moments seem to reverberate and echo throughout a novel so that things do ultimately feel linked. Is there anything more rewarding or exhilarating than the “aha!” moment when you read? I just really love when I’ve been reading happily along in a state of contented confusion only to have everything suddenly become clear and make sense. This novel certainly offers that to you in spades. If there was anything that disappointed me, it was the resolution of Laura’s storyline. In many ways, once you’ve finished the book, you feel like there really was only one option available, and yet as I read, I kept hoping something different would happen; indeed, I was practically positive that Brockmeier had something up his sleeve that would catch me by surprise. Of course, it wouldn’t have made sense for the story to go any other way, but still, to have been through so much, and then… well, I won’t say anything more for fear of ruining it for those of you who may one day pick this up. I will say though, that even though the novel does end, it does so in a satisfactorily open-ended fashion, so that even upon finishing, there are things to think about. I always really like when authors leave a few things unanswered so that we can feel like the characters continue on even if we aren’t there to witness their doings. All in all, a good read that was nicely written. I have a copy of Brockmeier’s newest novel, The Illumination, which I look forward to reading in the future! His books seem to be full of interesting ideas, but never forget that storytelling is paramount. Rating: 4 out of 5

15 Comments

  1. Amy
    06/16/2011

    ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy and Jose Saramago’s ‘Blindness’ are distressing but they’re so very good…right away my interest in this book was piqued. The City storyline is particularly fascinating and clever. I also love when reading a book that’s a bit confusing, but enjoyable so & suddenly your patience is rewarded with that great Aha! moment & all becomes clear. I think this book will be difficult to put down and will keep me absorbed. This is going high up on my tbr list!

  2. A good friend of mine bought this for me years ago, and I have yet to read it. But I found it when I was organizing my new bookshelves and put it back on the TBR. We shall see.

  3. 06/16/2011

    This has been on my list for years, mostly because the premise is so intriguing. And the fact that you compare it to two of my favorite books makes me more certain that I need to keep it on my list. Sounds great!

  4. 06/16/2011

    This is one of those books that I read but really remember nothing about. It has been probably about 4 years. My husband read it last year though and really liked it. I think he even read more Brockmeier after he finished it.

  5. Lu
    06/16/2011

    Read this pre-blogging and liked it quite a bit. Going to be reading his newest soon.

  6. 06/16/2011

    The beginning of your review had me wanting to add this to my list — what a cool idea! But as I read on, I think this might not end up a book for me. I really like the aspect of “The City” but am not one for apocalyptic tales. I know I’m one of the few, as so many seem to love them!

  7. 06/16/2011

    Steph, loved your review! This book sounds like such a good read – especially for the fall. I’m definitely adding it to my list of books to buy. I loved the idea of The City and can’t wait to read more about it.

  8. 06/21/2011

    @ Amy: I definitely didn’t find this book as distressing as either The Road or Blindness, but there were some parallels and the book is still really good without being traumatizing. 😉 And it’s definitely one of those books that builds to a rather magnificent crescendo so I hope you do check it out.
     
    @ jenn: Since you’ve rescued it from obscurity, you should give it a go! Books from friends can be tricky beasts, but this is a good one, I promise!
     
    @ Teresa: I was in a similar position! This book is one I’ve wanted to read for ages, but it wasn’t until recently that it showed up at McKay’s for cheap… I’m glad the wait was worth it!
     
    @ Stephanie: There is so much that goes on in this book that I could see the details fading from memory after a while, but in some ways I like books like that since it means you can re-read them and it’s almost like discovering the book all over again.
     
    @ Lu: Can’t wait to hear your thoughts on his new book! The premise is definitely intriguing and I want to read it, especially after finding this one so rewarding.
     
    @ Wallace: There are definitely apocalyptic elements to this book, though I will say that it is not nearly as bleak as most dystopian fiction. I am one of those who enjoys dystopian lit, so I may not be the best judge here, but I do think there are elements you would enjoy.
     
    @ Nadia: Oh, this would be a great fall/winter read since half of it takes place in the frosty wilds of Antarctica! Reading it in May was probably not seasonally appropriate but it was so engaging I didn’t notice the disconnect between it and my surroundings.

  9. 06/17/2011

    Wonderful review Steph! I loved the premise of the book – that memories keep people alive in a different world called the City. It makes me think of the Elysian fields 🙂 I loved the Dumbledore quote too – “to the well-organized mind, death is but the next adventure.” 🙂 Kevin Brokmeier seems to be an interesting writer!

  10. I saw the similarities with Saramago when I read The Illumination. This is already on my wishlist as I’m now keen to read all Brockmeier’s books. I’m pleased that you enjoyed this one and I’m sure you’ll find a lot to like in The Illumination too. 🙂

  11. 06/17/2011

    I have had this book on my shelf for the longest time, and can’t even remember who recommended it to me! It does sound like it’s got a really interesting premise and I am glad to hear that the dual storylines are done well. I always find myself liking one story better than the other when this technique is used, but to hear that eventually the two stories meld together well makes me very happy indeed. I have not yet read The Road or Blindness, so I doubt I will have the same reaction that you had, but now I am really curious about this book and want to give it a go. Steph, every time you rave about a book, it makes me want to drop everything and go check it out. Your reviews seem to have some really powerful juju with me!

  12. 06/17/2011

    I love dual narratives,so I really need to read this one. It’s been on my tbr for ages but somehow I was never in the mood for it.

  13. 06/21/2011

    @ Vishy: Having looked into some of Brockmeier’s other books, he definitely seems to be an author whose books incorporate really interesting ideas and play with metaphor quite a lot. I’m certainly eager to read the rest of his works.
     
    @ Jackie: How interesting that the Saramago similarity crops up in another one of his books… I’m even more intrigued to read The Illumination now! 😀
     
    @ zibilee: I always like talking about books that aren’t totally current since it’s interesting to hear from others who have read the book or own it and not had the chance to read it yet! I hope you do bump this one up the TBR pile since I think you’d like it a lot!
     
    @ Bina: The dual-narratives are done really well here – initially they are quite disparate and independent, but they gradually do begin to echo one another, subtly at first, which is what I really loved.
     
    @ anothercookiecrumbles: Don’t let this one collect dust any longer! It deserves to be read and enjoyed! 😀

  14. This sounds fantastic – it’s funny, I actually have this on my shelf – think I got it as a present ages ago, but never read it. Want to read it NOW. I haven’t read Blindness but The Road is one of my favourite books ever.

  15. 06/21/2011

    I like the two books you mention as comparisons, but I didn’t really like the Illumination, so I’m not sure about this one for me. I was in the minority on the Illumination, however, so you might well like it very much.

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