The first question to ask here is, how did I not read this book when it first came out in 2014? And then how did I not read it when it won the Arthur C Clarke Award?
Those of you who have already read this are now possibly backing away in dismay, and reflecting my second question:
How could I read this book this year: did I not know that it involved a… y’know… flu-like virus??
The answer to the second is no, actually, I didn’t. It came as quite a surprise. And it’s a bit of a spoiler I suppose to those who haven’t read it yet but I figure that’s a community service at the moment. Because the thing is, this is a fantastic book and I want to recommend it to everyone… it’s just that, at the moment, such recommendation requires a little delicacy.
“Mum! You should read this book!! … how do you feel about reading about pandemics?”
(That’s not quite verbatim, but close.)
(For the record, she said she was fine with it.)
At any rate, I bought this in one of my spates of book buying this year, as a title I’ve had hanging at the back of my mind for five years and knew basically nothing about. And then I read the whole thing in a day. I would have read it faster than I did but I had to keep stopping to eke it out just a little bit longer. Yes, it’s one of those.
There’s a lot to love about this book. The writing is wonderful, easy to read and utterly absorbing. It takes a particular style to get away with declaring “Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.” In the first part of the book, in particular, this felt a lot like one of the best of Kim Stanley Robinson’s stories (and yes, just to be clear, that’s definitely a compliment from me).
The narrative goes back and forth between times – pre- and post-pandemic – filling in character histories, drawing links between people, giving detail to the world. The two central characters (I would argue) are introduced at the start of the novel – both actors, one old and one a child. Their lives and the people they interact with largely inform the rest of the story. The child, in particular, grows up to be a focal part of the future story, traveling with a group of actors and musicians across an America utterly devastated by pandemic (see? this is why recommending it requires a certain delicacy right now!). These artists use a Star Trek quote as their raison d’être: “because survival is insufficient”. And I love this for many reasons.
As well as flitting between times, the narrative also shifts between characters – all of whom end up having some connection with the two actors, deep or glancing, which is a neat device that Mandel manages to make neither cheesy nor just too convenient. The range of people (rich and not, pleasant and not, etc) allows Mandel to explore multiple human experiences and reactions to disaster – which, let’s face it, is often the point of writing post/apocalyptic narratives. Another sign of a narrative that is well-paced and features multiple characters is that I never got impatient in reading about some new character, wanting to get back to an original – they were all engaging and, especially as the threads started to come together, I always wanted to see what the new character brought.
There’s not that many books about which I can confidently say “I will read you again.” This is one of them.