I first stumbled across A Brief History of the Dead in 2007, but never got round to reading it. I was delighted when it was picked as the inaugural volume for the new work bookclub. I'm unashamedly going to use LJ to capture my thoughts and impressions of each bookclub book I read, to help manage the gap between me finishing it and the group getting together to discuss.
First things first: ABHotD is the tale of Laura, a scientist working for Coca-Cola, who is sent to Antarctica as part of a PR stunt. When a pandemic plague sweeps the world, she is protected by her position, but ignorant of current events. Her storyline is her fight for survival in (probably) the least hospitable place in the world, as she struggles across the ice cap in search of help that can never come.
The dead of the title are the twin storyline, living on (existing?) in a city for as long as they are remembered by the living. As the city empties due to plague (think about it), the survivors find new connections in the web of Laura's past.
The novel is beautifully written: simple, elegant, clean prose that left me unaware of what had been interior monologue and what dialogue – in spite of this being necessarily introspective. Memory vignettes paint characters that are redrawn through conversations in the city of the dead.
Witty, spiky Luka of the warm heart who speaks in headlines; self-absorbed ad flack Lindell, running from guilt; Laura's parents, rediscovering love; Coleman, (pla)card-carrying believer even in death. There is a joy in their portrayal as in discovering what each means to Laura as she fights through the snow.
Ultimately this is another novel obsessed with memory, but also with how we perceive ourselves and how we interact / engage with those around us. It asks the fascinating question of how many people we each remember (who would inhabit our City?) and whether ignorance and uncertainty can empower us (would Laura travel if she knew there was nothing to find; or would she give up?).
What the author doesn't question or explore is intriguing. The implication is that the initially boundless City houses everyone – but it is very American in flavour (or perhaps European and seen through the lens of American characters). Where are the non-urban and non-Western dead?
I was slightly appalled to discover Coca-Cola had an office – the implication being that even the dead work, and in less personal or meaningful ways that starting a printing press (Luka) or running a neighbourhood restaurant. Coleman is chastised for not eating, told he won't heal (for you can be injured). Somewhere then, must be farmers, supermarkets, subway drivers, Coke bottling plants and other factories. I found this upsetting, and at odds with the tone otherwise established for the City (with the exceptions of Lindell and self-employed Luka – who gives away the fruits of his labour for free – none of the principals work). On the other hand, there appears to be no currency or governance, which is reassuring.
Ultimately, there are no answers in ABHotD (for reader or characters), only gentle questions and hypotheses. There's equally no resolution, although there can be no real doubt about where the story ends after the book closes (if it's a spoiler to say this isn't an epic adventure, rescue and post-apocalyptic rebuilding sort of book, you probably shouldn't be reading it anyway).
I thoroughly enjoyed it for the way it sparked thought, questions and reactions. I liked that even the dead can love, and that the characters so accurately remembered the small things that can build up to have meaning in our memories. Not an emotional read, but quite a satisfying one – although me being me, I would've liked a resolution at the end, final as it would necessarily be.
, I think you would enjoy this as a little slice of unusual and thought provoking – I'll bring it along on Tuesday.
Posted via LiveJournal app for iPhone.