Posted to the old TTA Press website on the 13th of June 2007:-
THE BRIEF HISTORY OF THE DEAD by KEVIN BROCKMEIER
John Murray hardback, 272pp, £12.99
Central to this novel is an Eastern spiritual concept, that after death people move onto a limbo plane where they remain for as long as there is somebody still alive who remembers them.
When a new and irresistible virus sweeps the globe, the only survivor is Laura Byrd, who was in Antarctica on an expedition for Coca Cola at the time (she had two male companions, but they were lost in an attempt to reach safety). One plot strand deals with Laura’s plight, finding herself trapped at the South Pole and the ensuing trek through the frozen wasteland to a scientific station where she expects to find help, but discovers only dead bodies. The slowly dawning realisation that she may be the only person left alive, followed by her death. And in another strand we get the people of an otherworldly city, thousands of them and most with nothing in common except that at some point they impinged on Laura’s life, their own realisation of what has happened to mankind, with the possibility that Coca Cola may have been, at least in part, responsible, and the shared knowledge that they all knew Laura – old lovers, friends and family, people she went to school and worked with, vagrants she gave money to.
And that is pretty much all there is to it, a simple concept containing nigh on endless possibilities. The interrelations of all these people and their attempt to make sense of what has happened, to fit their experience into some greater scheme of things, juxtaposed with Laura’s grim struggle to survive, makes for a fascinating read, with insights into human nature and the characterisation never less than interesting, while Brockmeier’s vision of the afterlife is intriguing. Laura’s struggle, the end to a life that was almost wholly ordinary and yet so rich, seems to provide a key note here, the idea that we all contain worlds within us, effect other lives in incalculable ways, and her battle to survive is certainly compelling, not least because of its utter futility.
Where the book falls down is in the ending. Having constructed this grand scenario Brockmeier doesn’t quite seem to know where to go with it, and so the reader is left with a vague sense of dissatisfaction; instead of some great spiritual truth, a revelation to cap all that has gone before, we are left with the feeling that this particular afterlife isn’t really that different from the existence we have known, the next bardo as the stuff of superior soap opera, and that whatever mysteries are contained within the universe or the mind of God will forever remain ineluctable (or at least until we ourselves have died and gone to…). Still, what was I expecting from a novel? Brockmeier is an amiable enough tour guide and you’ll have fun travelling in his company just as long as you don’t expect too much of the destination, which just may be the point of the exercise, though I doubt it.