One snowy night Arthur Leander, a famous actor, has a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo-turned-EMT, is in the audience and leaps to his aid. A child actress named Kirsten Raymonde watches in horror as Jeevan performs CPR, pumping Arthur’s chest as the curtain drops, but Arthur is dead. That same night, as Jeevan walks home from the theater, a terrible flu begins to spread. Hospitals are flooded and Jeevan and his brother barricade themselves inside an apartment, watching out the window as cars clog the highways, gunshots ring out, and life disintegrates around them. Fifteen years later, Kirsten is an actress with the Traveling Symphony. Together, this small troupe moves between the settlements of an altered world, performing Shakespeare and music for scattered communities of survivors. Written on their caravan, and tattooed on Kirsten’s arm is a line from Star Trek: “Because survival is insufficient.” But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who digs graves for anyone who dares to leave.
I have been seeing this book everywhere for the past few months. It was on the National Book Awards shortlist (as was All the Light We Cannot See, which I read a couple of months ago), and has been popping up all over the blogosphere for a while now.
This is an old school dystopian novel, as in the setting is in the future (though only about 20 years and regularly flashes back to present day) where a diseases (a type of flu) has wiped out almost the entire global population and the world has lost all modern inventions (technology, medicine etc.). It is one of those dystopian novels which seems scarily possible, much like The Handmaiden’s Tale which I read last year. It is entirely plausible that some flu will come along to which we have no immunity and cause a global pandemic, and then who knows.
I absolutely loved this book. I read it in 3 days, which given it was during the work week and I was up to my eyes, is unusual and 3 days later I still have a book hangover. However I’m finding it is also a hard book to discuss without giving anything away.
Dystopian element aside, this is a novel about a group of characters all connected by a single event/person…they all knew Arthur Leander, who dies the night the pandemic erupts. The story then charts their lives both before and after that moment in history. The narrative flashes back and forth between the present day, 20 years in the future and up to approximately 20 years in the past. We are provided with glimpses of the characters lives, providing insight into who they are though we are never given the full story. In effect its a serious of vignettes all tied into an overarching story arc. Combined they provide a commentary on modern life, humanity and how people react when pushed to the brink.
There is so much I want to say about this book but my mind is still processing it and I just don’t know how without giving anything away.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough especially to anyone who enjoyed The Handmaiden’s Tale. However if you are of a nervous disposition I would advise avoiding it like the plague, because the plausibility of events will freak you out.