This review is spoiler-free – any plot points mentioned are from the blurb of the book.
This is the second book I’ve finished this year, and I really enjoyed it. The accolade on the cover from Erin Morgenstern was what made me pick it up. If the author of The Night Circus thought it was ‘Absolutely extraordinary’, then I’m in!
The novel opens in medias res – a performance of King Lear in Toronto. Arthur Leander, while acting the eponymous king, dies onstage. On the same evening, a virus known as the Georgia Flu lands in North America.
In some ways, this story straddles the line between contemporary fiction and post-apocalyptic/dystopian fiction. The narrative moves back and forwards in time, between the time before the virus that ended modern civilisation and the time when people moved through that civilisation, not understanding what they had. Mandel makes a clever and subtle commentary on both the beauty and the absurdities of contemporary life by contrasting them against a terrifying ‘what if?’. What I love is that these observations are not condescending or filled with technophobic self-righteousness. The story revels in the possibility that life can be beautiful and joyful in many contexts, and the love citizens have for their own surroundings is valid and valuable.
We begin with two main events: Arthur Leander’s death, and the arrival of the Georgia Flu. One of these events will change the world entirely. The other is forgotten by all but a few people. I’ll let you decide for yourself which one the novel is really ‘about’.
My favourite things about the book, or that most impressed me, would have to be the skill with which Mandel balances a very broad scope of story – a change wrought in the entire world – and yet keeps the narrative lens tightly focused to a few characters’ movements. These people are scattered sometimes on opposite sides of the globe and across a timeline of forty or fifty years, yet the story never felt fragmented. The pacing of the novel is something I’ve rarely come across; rather than building to a critical point and then tying up the loose ends, tension and intrigue are consistently maintained, without ever becoming monotonous.
For me at least, this made it really, really difficult to put down at all.