Kevin Brockmeier,
The Brief History of the Dead
(Pantheon, 2006)

One of the few comforts we can draw on when facing up to our own mortality is the fact that we will live on in the memories of those we leave behind. Kevin Brockmeier takes this sentiment and envisions a world in which it is literally true. As such, The Brief History of the Dead makes for a unique take on the idea of life and death, as well as a poignant testimony to the power of memory.

For the dearly departed, there is no heaven or hell in this world of Brockmeier's imagination. Although the crossing can be extremely difficult, each soul finds his/her way to a magnificent City. Apart from the City's mysterious ability to expand in such a way that the newly arrived always have a place to live and work, it proves to be much like Earth. Many of its denizens take up the same kind of life they used to live, performing the same jobs and reuniting with loved ones who have also passed on, while others choose to reinvent themselves. After 60 or 70 years, many of them quietly disappear, but most are too busy living their own lives to really worry about their own distant future. It soon becomes clear, however, that those in the City remain there only as long as they exist in the living memories of individuals on Earth.

The great City undergoes drastic changes when a deadly virus back on Earth begins claiming the lives of a majority of the living world's population. Our only window into this futuristic Earth comes through the eyes of wildlife specialist Laura Byrd, but she could not be more isolated from the infection. Laura is in fact stranded on her own in a hut in deepest Antarctica, having had the rotten luck to be selected as one of three team members sent down there by the publicity-happy Coca-Cola Corp. to explore methods for using pure Antarctic ice in the manufacture of its product (which doesn't sound so crazy once you hear about the environmental problems of this futuristic Earth). Having lost their communications equipment to the elements, Laura's teammates set out for the nearest research station, promising to come back for her. That was over three weeks ago.

With the hut's heating coils finally failing, Laura has no choice but to set out on her own. What follows is a visceral and engrossing survival story that would have done Jack London proud. As Laura struggles to survive, the denizens of the City find themselves drastically reduced in number. When they realize they each have a connection to Laura Byrd, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that every other man, woman and child on Earth is now dead.

The big question is what will happen to the remaining denizens of the City once Laura herself dies. The reader will find this question almost as meaningful as the characters themselves, for Brockmeier makes you a part of their precarious afterlife. Two in particular, a journalism professor who had an affair with a young Laura and one of Laura's childhood friends, are wonderfully evocative characters who serve as the author's primary sounding boards for his speculative ideas of memory vis-a-vis human interaction and its implications for life (and even afterlife) itself.

It's a fascinating novel, but the conclusion may prove a little disappointing to some, for one could say that it ends with a whimper rather than a bang. As a reader, one cannot help but want more than Brockmeier gives us in the end, but I find it hard to criticize a book or its author on those terms. No matter what you think of the conclusion, The Brief History of the Dead is a poignant literary journey offering readers a unique perspective on some of the deepest questions of life and death.

review by
Daniel Jolley

3 July 2010

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