A novel set mostly in a post-apocalyptic world.
Actor Arthur Leander dies of a heart attack on stage in Toronto on the day that Georgian flu reaches Canada. Civilization falls apart. Twenty years later, a caravan of actors and musicians tour the shores of Lake Michigan bringing culture to the scattered settlements of survivors. But a prophet-cult threatens to disturb the fragile stability of the new world.
It starts brilliantly as, on the very first page, King Lear dies at the wrong moment and a paramedic dashes on stage. Sudden death and its shocking consequences are beautifully described. Chapter two is a brilliant conversation at the bar between the stunned actors, all talking about the same event from different viewpoints, and wondering what happens next. This chapter end with a wonderful two-line paragraph: "Of them all there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city."
And then the flu strikes.
The book now jumbles different narratives. We hear, intermittently, what happens to Jeavon, the paramedic. Miranda, Arthur's first wife, once a graphic artist but now a shipping executive, remembers how she met him and how they split. There are extracts from letters that Arthur writes to V, his oldest friend, who never wrote back and has now published them. We leap forward twenty years to learn about the New Symphony, a travelling troupe of actors and musicians who are a lovely microcosm of society, full of squabbles, petty jealousies, affections, love affairs and betrayals; this is narrated by Kirsten who as an 8 year old child actress was on stage with the dying actor. Kirsten has two keepsakes of the time before the flu: a glass paperweight and two issues of a graphic novel set in a failing planet-sized space station called Station Eleven. And towards the end we hear from Clark, Arthur's best friend, who survives the flu because his plane was diverted to an airport and the passengers abandoned there.
There are moments when this is just another post-apocalyptic novel. The detritus of civilization reminds everyone of what they have lost: abandoned cars litter the highways. The forests are full of 'ferals'; banditry stalks the roads. Although a vast number of people have been wiped out by the flu (two estimates put it at an improbable 99% or more) a surprising number of the people associated with Arthur have survived: two of his wives, his son, his best friend, the child actress and the paramedic; their stories intertwine.
But the point of the book is that 'survival is insufficient' and that you need culture too, although as one character remarks, it is ironic that the quote actually comes from Star Trek. Therefore the actors and musicians playing the classics, therefore the museum that Clark starts in the airport.
And if, in true Shakespearean style, the plot is sometimes a little contrived, the author more than makes up for it by the quality of the writing. The characters a perfectly drawn and the juxtaposition of their new world with their memories of the old world is tenderly handled. With all such things there are questions such as how can a world living hand to mouth afford actors? But the matter of fact way in which her utterly believable characters interact and the crystal clear descriptions of their environment make it easy to suspend disbelief.
An excellent read. January 2016; 333 pages
- Having reviewed over 1100 books on this blog, I have now written one myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. It is available on Kindle through Amazon. Read it and find out whether this critic can write. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57