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The Brief History of the Dead: A novel Hardcover – February 14, 2006

3.5 out of 5 stars 192 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. A deadly virus has spread rapidly across Earth, effectively cutting off wildlife specialist Laura Byrd at her crippled Antarctica research station from the rest of the world. Meanwhile, the planet's dead populate "the city," located on a surreal Earth-like alternate plane, but their afterlives depend on the memories of the living, such as Laura, back on home turf. Forced to cross the frozen tundra, Laura free-associates to keep herself alert; her random memories work to sustain a plethora of people in the city, including her best friend from childhood, a blind man she'd met in the street, her former journalism professor and her parents. Brockmeier (The Truth About Celia) follows all of them with sympathy, from their initial, bewildered arrival in the city to their attempts to construct new lives. He meditates throughout on memory's power and resilience, and gives vivid shape to the city, a place where a giraffe's spots might detach and hover about a street conversation among denizens. He simultaneously keeps the stakes of Laura's struggle high: as she fights for survival, her parents find a second chance for love—but only if Laura can keep them afloat. Other subplots are equally convincing and reflect on relationships in a beautiful, delicate manner; the book seems to say that, in a way, the virus has already arrived. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School–In a not-so-distant future, a deadly virus kills off every human on Earth, except for Laura Byrd, a wildlife specialist on an expedition to the South Pole. Readers quickly learn that the dead move on to another life in a fantastic city on another plane of existence; there, they live out a second life free from aging and disease until every person who knew them on Earth dies. The chapters alternate between Laura and those in the city of the dead, often showing how these individuals connect to her. The elegiac, thoughtful tone of the writing is balanced by the survivor's adventure-filled travels across the frozen landscape as she hopelessly searches for signs of others. A crisis develops in the city as the only ones who remain finally realize that they continue to exist because Laura is still fighting for her life on Earth. Brockmeier's style–elements of fantasy mixed with a strong sense of character and a wonderful lyricism–will remind readers of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas (Random, 2004). Although lacking some of the far-reaching depth of Mitchell's work, Brockmeier's haunting reminder of how connected people are to one another will appeal to readers of fantasy yearning for a bit more to think about than the usual fare offers.–Matthew L. Moffett, Ford's Theatre Society, Washington, DC
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 252 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon; First Edition edition (February 14, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375423699
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375423697
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (192 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #484,963 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Like many who have reacted to this novel, the first chapter knocked me out. I had already read two disparate critiques in newspapers of the book that led me to seek the book out, so I knew that after the opening the initial thrill might not sustain itself. This hesitation was, after I read the novel straight through in two sittings, shown to be true. The long polar trek of Laura does borrow from the well-titled "The Worst Journey in the World," but I found these sections, after a while, rather pat and uninvolving most of the time. It's difficult to stay interested in Laura's predicament after a while, with nobody else for her to talk to or to keep us alert. She has not led that exciting a life for her to have a lot of recollections to fall back upon that make her any more than ordinary. And, in a novel, we don't want to be stuck with the mundane girl-next-door as a protagonist, even if she is in dire straits in a terrible place. The scene-setting of the first cabin and her growing peril sets up this phase of the narrative promisingly, but once she's out on the ice the plot holds no surprises. Like her, we get drowsy in this lonely stretch of the novel.

As for the city-in-limbo, it was puzzling if, as seemed to be confirmed in the Coke executive's reverie, the city increasingly was "populated" not only by the people Laura was thinking of, but that Laura "generated" everything else in the city rather than what the inhabitants themselves did in the city. It seems that the people in the city limited what could and could not be done in the city, as their occupations seem to constrain what the city contained--not only the people, but objects. There are no salting trucks to melt the snow because Laura knew no salting truck driver: all of this background needed more clarification.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
With the publishing industry fixating on the next DaVinci Code, alphabetical mysteries, and serial killers, it's a treat to find a truly original young writer. And Brockmeier is no flash in the pan, either; He's won the O. Henry Award, the Nelson Algren Award, An Italo Calvino Short Fiction Award and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship.

I would imagine some readers thought Brockmeier was riding on the coattails of the LOVELY BONES, but that's just not the case. Brockmeier doles out equal portions of pessimism and optimism, and just when you think you've got this pitcher figured out he throws you a knuckleball.

The novel alternates between the adventures of Laura Byrd, a Coca Cola researcher stranded in the Antarctic, and the City of the Dead. The earth has been decimated by a virus called "The Blinks." Brockmeier's notion of an afterlife is a way station where people must stay until people whom they have known on earth have also died. Over half of them have known Laura Byrd.

The people who live in the City of the Dead are not ghosts. They will remind you of your next-door neighbors. They get up, have breakfast, and go to work, just like normal people. They appear to have corporal bodies. One of the characters, the Blind Man, wonders about this. He has a theory about the difference between the spirit and the soul. He believes the spirit connects the body and the soul, and that when the spirit dies, we move on to the next life.

Parts of the novel are definitely satirical. There's a Coca Cola executive who's still trying to cover-up Coca Cola's connection to the Blinks for one thing. It can also be funny as when one of the new arrivals, an avowed atheist, is thrilled that he was wrong. But was he?
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Format: Hardcover
"The Brief History of the Dead" is by no means a perfect book, but it IS original, thought-provoking, gorgeously written and, ultimately, very moving. Kevin Brockmeier has taken some huge risks in attempting this very complex novel and, for the most part, they pay off. At first, I thought the first part of the book "telegraphed" too much of what would happen in the second half, but I was wrong. I was riveted, waiting to find out exactly how the two parts of the story would converge, and along the way to a very satisfying conclusion, I laughed, I cried, I was frightened, and I thought a great deal. I recommend it highly.
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Format: Hardcover
Brockmeier's new novel, The Brief History of the Dead, is a curious affair that may not appeal to all readers, especially those readers who like their narratives straightforward and as unconvoluted as possible.

I was, for the most part, riveted.

Although the novel's set-up is amazingly obnoxious (alternating chapters of the "living" - Laura Byrd, a biologist trapped and alone in Antarctica - and the "dead" - a population of recently passed souls who reside in The City), Brockmeier controls both sides quite well with a few missteps along the way.

Initially it was the stories of the dead that were more interesting, but as Byrd's situation becomes bleaker (and, quite honestly, more terrifying), I found myself wanting to skip the odd chapters and follow only her journey. Brockmeier's pacing during Byrd's ordeal is phenomenal. As she comes to terms with her situation, he casually unpeels her psychological state, which only creates more dread and concern for her - we, the reader, can sense her fate, but we can do nothing to stop it. These chapters propel the book with a tremendous amount of humanity.

Perhaps the book's fatal flaw is devoting entire chapters to inconsequential characters who reside in the City: specifically those of a prophet and a corrupt white collar businessman. Those in the City whose stories were interesting (Byrd's best friend, a professor, and Byrd's parents) are dropped as quickly as they're introduced, which made me feel like the book was populated with a lot of padding to support its ambitious premise.

Overall, The Brief History of the Dead is an engaging read that, for those inclined to mull over its arching philosophical questions, will encourage discussions of mortality, fate, and the necessity of human contact.
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