One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve.
Moving back and forth in time—from the actor’s early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theater troupe known as The Travelling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains—this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor’s first wife, his oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony, caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet.
Survival is insufficient.
It all starts and ends with Shakespeare. After an eventful, unfinished King Lear show, the word ends. The Georgian Flu wipes out 99% of humanity and the world becomes a dystopia. However, you would not categorise this book as pure dystopia; perhaps dystopia gone rogue, because what starts as a fast-paced development of events that leaves you breathless and makes you race through the first 50 pages comes to a startling halt, leaving you feeling trapped and unsure of what lies ahead.
That’s where the Travelling Symphony and Shakespeare come in, after the world has ended. I don’t know what I expected to find at the end of the world. But it was heart-warming to find humanity not just surviving, but trying to live as best as they can.
People unavoidably go back to the basics, now that the miracles of technology are behind them. But they also go forward in the sense that they return back to their inner strength, trying to overcome animal instincts, they survive on their own means, and they appreciate what was best about the world – a world we spend too much time taking for granted. It’s an eye-opening insight into what our current life really is: a collective miracle. Without 99% of us, everything would come to a halt, and everything we’ve achieved so far is a wonder. “The beauty of this world where almost everyone was gone. If hell is other people, what is a world with almost no people in it?” And the answer is also provided: “Hell is the absence of the people you long for.”
“What I mean to say is, the more you remember, the more you’ve lost.” The non-linear narrative that plays with memories adds to the plot and character development with slow but gradual character build-up, where the reader is allowed to draw their own conclusions following Mandel’s winks.
This book reveals big truths via the small things. It talks about what it means to be human, and how often we forget that it’s a decision each of us has to make every day. Every major catastrophe finds its prophet after all. It’s a book beautifully written with strong imagery, that reads like it’s been dipped in poetry inspired by the life that ‘was’ – much like what is left behind.
OST: A Midsummer’ Night’s Dream, Overture – Mendelssohn