Emily St. John Mandel, 2014
One night, much like any other, Arthur Leander – a famous actor and the lead in a production of King Lear - dies of a heart attack on stage. A shocking event, but nothing compared to what happens next. The Georgia Flu, once thought to be just a slightly-more-deadly-than-normal strain of the flu, begins to spread to the U.S., and soon has covered the entire globe and wiped out most of the population. Fifteen years after the outbreak, we follow the lives of Kirsten and the other members of the Traveling Symphony – a group of actors and musicians who travel from settlement to settlement putting on shows. Meanwhile, flashbacks give us insight into what Arthur’s life was like leading up to his last performance.
I find it difficult to give a good synopsis of this book. Most of the reviews I read opened with what the book opened with – Arthur dying on stage during a performance. But how one actor dying of a heart attack has anything to do with a population-destroying flu and the post-apocalyptic world that follows threw me off. Because, really, it has nothing to do with any of it. But Arthur, despite never living long enough to see the post-flu world, becomes the focal point of the novel, tying the characters together. From the Traveling Symphony, to the religious zealot known as “The Prophet”, to a man trying to make a life for himself that he can be proud of, all of the story lines that follow have characters that can be tied back to that final night of Arthur’s life. And it is for this reason that Arthur is given center stage as we learn more about him and his life in flashbacks.
The mood of this book, despite being set mostly in a post-apocalyptic world, is very uplifting. The Traveling Symphony’s motto – “Because survival is insufficient” (yes, stolen from Star Trek) – supports this. The survivors have done just that – survived – and now they are doing what they can to live. To make the world a place worth living in. I have never read anything by this author before, but she has a way of writing that is beautiful without being flowery. It was so easy to picture this world that is nothing like ours, that I found myself lost in it.
I’ll admit that the book was a little slow for me in getting started, but this is mostly because I had no idea where this book was going. After the opening, I thought that the book was going to follow the paramedic – Jeevan – and I was surprised and disappointed to find the next chapter open up fifteen years later with Kirsten. But once I allowed myself to stop worrying about the way I wanted the book to go and just allow it to go on its own, I was immediately intrigued. Kirsten was an enjoyable character to follow in the end. And I wasn’t completely disappointed, as we do find out what happens to Jeevan by the end.
Overall this was a wonderfully written book. Unlike other post-apocalyptic books, such as The Road (which I’ll admit right now that I hated), this is an uplifting and enjoyable read. Despite being set in a world where people have to scavenge and hunt for food, and where violence could always be around the next turn in the path, the book was heartwarming and uplifting. There was plenty of drama and not every turn of events ended well, but the overall mood was never dark and dreary. I actually wish that this book could have gone on longer.
Highly recommended for pretty much anyone. Don’t let the dark subject matter or vague plot description put you off of this one. Certainly one of the best books I’ve read this year.