One snowy night Arthur Leander, a famous actor, has a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo-turned-EMT, is in the audience and leaps to his aid. A child actress named Kirsten Raymonde watches in horror as Jeevan performs CPR, pumping Arthur’s chest as the curtain drops, but Arthur is dead. That same night, as Jeevan walks home from the theater, a terrible flu begins to spread. Hospitals are flooded and Jeevan and his brother barricade themselves inside an apartment, watching out the window as cars clog the highways, gunshots ring out, and life disintegrates around them.
Fifteen years later, Kirsten is an actress with the Traveling Symphony. Together, this small troupe moves between the settlements of an altered world, performing Shakespeare and music for scattered communities of survivors. Written on their caravan, and tattooed on Kirsten’s arm is a line from Star Trek: “Because survival is insufficient.” But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who digs graves for anyone who dares to leave.
This was one of the most hyped up books of last year. I heard countless rave reviews about this novel, which I hate because it raises my expectations and then I find myself disappointed. Luckily, even with high expectations, this book was a delight to read.
There are a lot of post-apocalyptic/dystopian novels out there these days, but this was such a unique take on the story that I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the premise. This book isn’t just about a group of people surviving in the wreckage of the new world, but choosing to entertain others and purposely venture to different places and meet new people. The line “because survival is insufficient” sums up their philosophy completely.
The truth about this book is that if the world collapsed, our new world would look exactly the way this book portrays. There would be cults, bandits, and murderers, but there would also be small communities who were trying to build a new life, and I think there would be a group of people who kept art and music and theater alive. There would be people who documented what the world was and tried to remind people of what it could be.
This novel has multiple timelines and quite a few characters to keep track of. The characters weave in and out of each others lives and I always find novels that have this literary device fascinating. I like thinking about the different connections between people and when it’s done in a book, I find it enjoyable to put the clues together and see how a character becomes the person they are. I can think of A Visit From the Goon Squad also doing this very successfully. While the plot was meandering and a bit slow at times, this book has such rich and fleshed out characters that I didn’t mind. I would definitely call this book more character-driven than plot-driven, but the characters are so wonderful and feel so genuine that the slightly slow plot didn’t bother me.
I think it’s apparent that I really liked this book, but it’s by no means perfect. It does read a little long at times, and there are a lot of threads to keep track of. Some characters were introduced and I thought they would be very important to the story, but ended up being almost forgotten. Also, there were quite a few unanswered questions at the end of the novel, but I think that was done purposely.
Emily St. John Mandel’s writing is beautiful and this book is strongly recommended. I’ll be eagerly awaiting her future works.