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Bloody Shambles

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The Brief History of the Dead - Kevin Brockmeier This is such a great premise, executed beautifully by Brockmeier. The story is based on the traditional African concept of the zamani or "living-dead". The idea being that as long as someone who is living remembers you, you will note truly die. Brockmeier expands on this concept by creating a city filled with the souls of these living-dead. When a pandemic begins to wipe out the Earth's population, the question then becomes - what happens to the city and the souls that dwell within it. Brockmeier alternates between the city's inhabitants, and the sole survivors of the pandemic, stranded in Antarctica. The story alternates between the two locations. Brockmeier's elegant, under-stated writing ensures that the reader isn't beaten over the head with what could easily be overwhelming concepts and plot lines.It took me much longer than it should have to read this book, because I found myself extrapolating on the plot: If this is the case, then what if this happened? Most of my questions were answered, or at least touched on and yet this wasn't a heavy going read at all. I was also completely taken with Brockmeier's ability to portray the intimate details of his characters. simply and beautifully. I was surprised that a male author could so easily portray the inner workings of his female characters using such simple detail. Despite what some may read as being a science fiction plot, the book really does defy genre labels, which I really appreciated. The overall feeling of the book was quite charming and magical, despite some obviously sad situations. There was very little to find fault with at all, but perhaps it would have been nice to see out the story to its logical conclusion. I also found it odd that the book was set in the future. It didn't add anything much to the story, and I found some of the future predictions to be a bit unlikely, particularly with regard to technology. I have given this book 5 stars, because I know this is a story that will remain in my memory for years to come. REVIEW WITH SPOILERS - The concept of zamani (the living-dead) that the book is based on throws up endless hypotheticals and logical consequences: the son who is older than his father, eternal children, second deaths and losses etc. I think the author did well to explore some of these concepts, while leaving others to the imagination of his readers. It would have been easy to become bogged down in extrapolations, but he avoided this trap skilfully. One idea that I wish had been explored though, was: What if Laura could remember a person (if prompted) but the thought never cropped up? Would that person still go to the city when they died? To me, this seemed to be one of the fundamental rules to the city's functioning, and I felt I would have liked to have understood this more. Another thing I wondered about was whether, when a person entered the city, they became what Laura remembered of them, more so than their honest selves. I suspect a more leisurely reading would reveal a bit more about that idea.I really enjoyed Brockmeier's portrayal of two of the female characters, Marion Byrd and Minny Rings. In both cases, I found myself noting certain passages that displayed such insight into the little things a woman experiences: the breeze on the back of Marion's neck when she swept her hair up, for instance, really struck me. Minny Rings rubbing her feet together in semi-circles was another, I thought, very female quirk. I wondered where the author picked up these insights. The explanation of Minny's insomnia seemed so realistic and relatable, I actually read this passage several times.As well as these mundane ideas, there were some profound concepts explored in the book. The idea of "life as a solitude waiting to be transfigured", may not have been Brockmeier's originally, but it's something that clearly appealed to him personally and was well woven into the story. Other such grand concepts that were explored were: the spirit as a tether between the body and the soul and the past as an unknown shadow behind every person (and therefore does love require that we shine a light on that shadow?).Something I was a bit confused about were the physicalities of the souls in the city. Early on, the author explains that whatever injuries the person had before they died endure in the city - blindness and knee injuries endure. But what of the injuries that lead to the person's death? Surely the logical extension would be that Luka's car crash injuries would also endure? This is one of those niggling things that kept popping up for me.The book is based on an assumption that the city would empty out "in times of war, plague or famine", however I would have thought the opposite to be true. Unless everyone in a person's circle dies, then that person would move on to inhabit the city. Even in times of war, plague or famine, it wouldn't be likely that everyone who had ever met this person would be killed. The probability of this happening is extremely low, so this assumption did bother me a bit. At the end of the day though, the story ends up being about one lone survivor of the human race, so the story itself made logical sense.One thing that kept bothering me was that this whole bustling city existed, and they all had the sorts of things that human beings use and produce: shoes, guns, photocopiers, paper shredders, cutlery etc. I kept wondering where they obtained these things! They wouldn't have access to the materials they needed to produce these things, even if they did have the skilled workforce to manufacture them. Am I being pedantic? Probably, but it's a point that kept cropping up every time someone in the city went shopping, photocopied a newsletter or fired a gun!I still have a few unanswered questions, particularly about a couple of the characters and their relationships to Laura. I suspect that these questions would be answered with another reading. I find it difficult to believe that Brockmeier would have neglected to tease out these connections somewhere, since he drew out the other connections so subtly but thoughtfully. I loved that each character's relationship with Laura was revealed in such subtle ways. These details became delightful revelations scattered in unexpected places, and I really enjoyed the hunt for them.I did feel that by setting the book in the future, it stretched credulity unnecessarily. I found myself several times thinking, "Well that just wouldn't happen!". For example, I find it difficult to believe that a "white powder campaign" where people are subjected to terrorism hoaxes would actually result in increased sales for Coca Cola! Some of the technology also seemed dubious, as did the idea of Australia going to war with the Netherlands! I wondered exactly what the Dutch could do to piss us off as a country to that extent!The ending was only slightly unresolved, and I do wish that we could have seen what happened when the city collapsed. It would have been nice to see the cycle completed. These concerns are only mild, however - I do think that this is very nearly the perfect book.