The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier

Brief history of the dead

Published: 2007 by John Murray
My copy: borrowed from the Library where I work

Memorable quote: “What kind of heaven had the blasting sound of garbage trucks in the morning and the smell of fish rotting by the river? What kind of hell, for that matter, had bakeries and dogwood trees and perfect blue days that made the hairs on the back of your neck rise on end?”

This novel is based on a captivating premise: people can be divided into three categories, the living, the long dead, and the people who are dead but still have living friends, families and former colleagues who keep their memory alive, and keep them tied to the world. Brockmeier imagines a city where this category of souls exist temporarily until the last person alive to have known them passes over. This city is neither heaven nor hell but has a space and an identity all of its own. I found this such an interesting idea and though it raised a lot of unanswered practical questions (people appear to eat in the city so where does food come from? ) I could overlook these because the premise was so engaging on an emotion level.

Set in the near future, the novel explores the effects on this City of the Dead of an apocalyptic event in the living world. Chapters alternate between a character-studies of city inhabitants and the story of Laura Byrd who is fighting for survival in Antarctica amidst a gradually revealed backdrop of global disaster. I enjoyed the elements of grim corporate satire in Laura’s story (she has been sent to the melting ice cap by Coca Cola to investigate the potential for bottling the “freshest water in the world”) but – and this may surprise you – I didn’t so much enjoy the polar survival element of her experience. Brockmeier draws heavily on The Worst Journey in the World for this element of the narrative. Respect to him for doing so, but his own work suffers by comparison. I can’t help feeling that any knowledge of Cherry-Garrard’s narrative just makes Laura’s feel less harrowing and less powerful by comparison – which isn’t to say she doesn’t have a tough time of things, just that Brockmeier doesn’t make the reader really feel it.

The other thing I didn’t like about this novel was the ending: it just felt like the author had some great initial ideas but didn’t know what to do with them. It sort of peters out. The Brief History of the Dead is still worth a read, though, and I can imagine the City of the Dead scenes could inspire some pretty fascinating discussion.

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