🙂 🙂 🙂
A particularly virulent strain of flu wipes out the population of most of the world within a few weeks. This is the story of before that event and twenty years after it.
Just before the flu struck, famous actor Arthur Leander died of a heart attack during a performance of King Lear. The story is based around him and the people who were connected with him – either family, friends or people who were in the theatre that night. The future story has as its main character, Kristen – a child actress in Lear, now a young woman travelling with a band of fellow actors and musicians bringing Shakespeare to the small communities of survivors that have sprung up since the apocalypse. The past story (which is set in our present) revolves around Arthur and his failed marriages.
I’m afraid I found this a book of two halves. The post-apocalyptic portion is fairly interesting, although the ‘world’ seems pretty under-developed. Mandel has decided to go with a reasonably hopeful outlook where people start to form little communities, and work in co-operation with each other. She spoils this a little by throwing in the old cliché of a fake ‘messiah’ attracting followers who then go around terrorising the peaceful folk. Her main point in this section is that there is a need to feed the mind and soul as much as the body, and though she starts out well with the Shakespearian element, she doesn’t really follow through. My view may be being influenced by the fact that I am a dedicated fan of Star Trek – by using a quote from Voyager, ‘Survival is insufficient’, she invited comparison; and, unfortunately for my feelings about the book, I feel that the episode the line comes from says considerably more about connectedness and individuality than this does. However the writing is good, and I feel this section works overall.
The ‘before the virus’ section, on the other hand, is tedious in the extreme. Why she chose to set this around the fake world of a Hollywood actor beats me, since all it does is ensure that it has no comparison to the lives of the majority of her readership. It reads like a long and rather dull daytime soap, as Arthur makes his way through three broken marriages, and since we know in advance that most of the people in this section die in the virus it’s hard to get up much emotional investment. I quickly found I was enduring rather than enjoying these lengthy passages. If the intention was to highlight differences between ‘before’ and ‘after’, I feel it would have been better to choose a more average life in the ‘before’ part. And, for the sake of keeping it interesting, it would have been better not to tell the reader the fate of the characters at the beginning.
To be honest, I’m at a bit of a loss as to why this book is garnering so many rave reviews. While the ‘after’ bit is quite well written, enough to make me interested to see how Mandel develops in the future, it doesn’t really stand comparison to the best of dystopian fiction, and the ‘before’ section pulls it right down. A disappointing read in the end, perhaps because my expectations were too high.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Pan MacMillan.