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The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier

What's so special about Laura?

Murrough O'Brien
Sunday 26 March 2006 02:00 BST

Between earth and whatever lies beyond, the inhabitants of a benevolent purgatory known simply as The City have realised that death can be a wonderful restorative. In his novel, The Brief History of the Dead, Kevin Brockmeier shows us an otherworld in which small mercies can turn to great joys, and long struggles find the most surprising rewards.

A terrible virus, known as "the Blinks" after its first symptom, is scouring the earth, but this has the paradoxical effect of temporarily emptying the City as the long-dead are "evacuated". The City is not Heaven ("What kind of Heaven had the blasting sound of garbage trucks in the morning?"), but even less does it resemble Hell. It is not limbo, for its inhabitants do not simply wait, they pick up where they left off: new love is born, old love revivified. Some abuse this second chance: in death, a magnate takes the opportunity to destroy the evidence of his company's complicity in the spread of the virus. The prevailing note, however, is one of hope. In particular, Marion Byrd is hoping for news of her daughter, Laura.

Laura herself is still on this side of existence, just about, but stranded in Antarctica, beset by loneliness and a flood of strange memories. Her two companions, sent, like her, to discover means of converting ice to water for the Coca-Cola corporation, have not returned from their mission to find news of the suddenly silent outside world. So she sets off after them on her sled. When she arrives at the station she finds 20 graves and a diary recording the last days of the colony. She sets off again, advancing into snow in the sure knowledge that death, either from exposure or from the virus, awaits her.

In The City her name is cropping up more and more frequently. Even Coleman, a deranged street preacher, has registered it, though for him it can only refer to the birds which flutter about seeking to hinder his mission. Her parents are anxious for news of her. Just as they had originally believed that The City owed its existence to the memories of the living, so now the citizens are increasingly convinced that Laura herself sustains it.

The themes supported by the seemingly simple plot are united with wonderful delicacy. Laura is an unlikely redeemer; you never quite understand what is so special about this girl that she can construct an entire limbo by the force of her memory. The word-associations which punctuate her long musings become seriously annoying by the end of the book. To be blunt, there's too much of Laura in general. The prose spreads a patina of whimsy over even the most urgent emotions: the characters are sometimes hearts that think rather than people who feel. But for all its foibles, The Brief History of the Dead must be accounted a prodigy of imagination, insight and overwhelming tenderness.

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