Saturday, January 14, 2012

Review: The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier

Title: The Brief History of the Dead
Author: Kevin Brockmeier
Genre: Contemporary, Fantasy
Release Date: January 25th 2007
Publisher: John Murray Publishers
Pages: 272
Format: Paperback
Literary award: Borders Original Voices Award for Fiction (2006)
Links: Goodreads | Amazon | Bookdepository
Read from December 30, 2011 - January 11, 2012
My rating: 2 stars: Nothing special
Summary: From Kevin Brockmeier, one of this generation's most inventive young writers, comes a striking new novel about death, life, and the mysterious place in between. The City is inhabited by those who have departed Earth but are still remembered by the living. They will reside in this afterlife until they are completely forgotten. But the City is shrinking, and the residents clearing out. Some of the holdouts, like Luka Sims, who produces the City’s only newspaper, are wondering what exactly is going on. Others, like Coleman Kinzler, believe it is the beginning of the end. Meanwhile, Laura Byrd is trapped in an Antarctic research station, her supplies are running low, her radio finds only static, and the power is failing. With little choice, Laura sets out across the ice to look for help, but time is running out. Kevin Brockmeier alternates these two storylines to create a lyrical and haunting story about love, loss and the power of memory.

I have to say that The Brief History of the Dead is one of those books that sound promising but let me down because it doesn't live up to my expectation, and it's also boring. Actually I don't really want to review this, but since I haven't reviewed anything in a while, I think it's time I should do something about this laziness.

My brief summary of The Brief History of the Dead, which is a contemporary novel with some fantasy twist that tells a story of two worlds: the world of the living, and the word of the dead, aka "The City", goes like this: ..........................................................................................................

I'm not joking. I really cannot summarize it. There's pretty much nothing in the story. It's just pages and pages of nothingness. It goes nowhere. My feeling about the story in three words: WASTE OF TIME.

First of all, the narrative in the book bored the hell out of me. It's not engaging. The narrative is always switching between the life stories of the dead in The City, the happenings in The City, and the journey of Laura, who is the only person left in the world after the pandemic kills everyone. At first I thought the book was only going to tell me about each and everyone of the people in The City, because for quite some time, that's all it talks about! It goes on and on about how they die, or their memories of the world of the living, and the thumping sound that they hear after they die, and whatnot. And then it says that the city is shrinking. The people in the city begin to disappear for no apparent reason, blah blah blah. And then we're introduced to Laura Byrd the survivor, who is sent by Coca-Cola, the company that she works for, to Antarctica to conduct some research, and therefore trapped in the research station there. She had two colleagues with her, Puckett and Joyce, who, after realizing that their supplies were running low and that they lost contact with the outside world, set out to try to contact Coca-Cola because they felt like they were neglected by the company. Laura waits, but they never return. And then she decides that she has to find them and contact the company.

Her journey in Antarctica is long, I'm sure, but really, does the narrative have to tell us about her every footstep? All I've ever known about her journey is that she's always thinking about someone (it's trying to say that ALL the people who remain in the city are there because they are remembered by Laura, therefore they're not gone), and that she feels cold, and that she sets up her tent to sleep in it but can't sleep because she's too tired, and that she can feel her sweat freeze on her skin, blah blah boring blah. These things recur all the time. Honestly, I don't really want to know, thank you very much.

Now secondly, let's move on to a more interesting topic: the world-building. When I first read the back cover of this book, I was very interested indeed. "Imagine a place between heaven and earth. A city where everyone ends up after they die. This city looks like any other, with trees and houses and newspapers, where people work, drink coffee and fall in love. And here they remain, kept alive by the memories of those left behind on earth." I've always been interested in theories of afterlife, and this book promises one. The Brief History of the Dead has a really unique way of looking at it (or at least for me, as I have never come across anything like this before). In the book, when people die, they go to "the city". The City is neither heaven nor hell, it's just a place for those who are dead but are still remembered by the living. Basically, they will remain there until they are completely forgotten, or in other words, until all the people who know or remember them are dead. Some Christians who are there start losing their faith, when they don't get the heaven that their religion promises. Some keep holding on to it, for they don't know what might happen, where they might go next. Nobody knows since when The City has existed. Sounds interesting, doesn't it?

But I'm not impressed. This world is very sloppily built. In the book, the people in The City do things that they shouldn't have to do, since, you know, they're dead. Some have to go to work, while others have to beg for money on the streets. They are hungry, and they need sleep. They are in relationships with new people they meet there, and they build families consisting of people who are not blood-related. All this doesn't make one bit of sense to me. There are refrigerators and sofas and books and stuff that the living world has, but where do all those stuff come from? Who created them? It just sounds ridiculous and out of nowhere. The world-building isn't believable at all. And since it's a city, and it's also HUGE, since no one has ever been to the end of the road whatsoever, shouldn't there be a government or something? Since people in this afterlife have jobs, having a ruling government sounds reasonable, don't you think? How do all these people manage to live together without some sort of authorities? Doesn't make sense to me.

And lastly, the characters? I don't care about any of them. I think it's all this switching scenes that makes it hard to really feel connected to anyone in particular. Personally I find the characters quite flat. We don't know anything much about them. And there are just too many characters that it's hard to keep track of who's who.

I could have hated this book. So many things I don't like about it, you see. But if there's anything I like at all, it's the writing. I don't know how to explain it exactly, all I can say is that I think it's quite beautiful. The words sound confident and enchanting, but sadly, the writing alone couldn't save the book when the story isn't well-developed enough.


This review is also posted on Goodreads.

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