Review: The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier

Title: The Brief History of the Dead
Author: Kevin Brockmeier
Pages: 272
Genre: Literary Fiction
Release Date: February 14th, 2006
Publisher: Pantheon
Source: Personal Copy

What really happens to living creatures once they die? This question is perhaps one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of the Universe. The Brief History of the Dead is Kevin Brockmeier's attempt at an answer.

No, the city was not heaven, and it was not hell, and it certainly was not the world. It stood to reason, then, that it had to be something else. More and more people came to adopt the theory that it was an extension of life itself -- a sort of outer room -- and that they would remain there only so long as they endured in living memory. When the last person who had actually know them died, they would pass over into whatever came next.
The story starts off by introducing the inhabitants of the City. Multiple narrators tell of their crossing and provide details of their daily lives and interactions with other residents, giving the city a very small town feel. When the population starts declining, journalist Luka Sims begins to wonder what is causing such a rapid exodus. After interviewing the newly deceased, he realizes that a deadly virus has been unleashed on Earth resulting in mass casualties. One of the remaining inhabitants is Laura Byrd, a researcher for the Coca-Cola Company currently stationed in Antarctica. Through alternating chapters, Brockmeier weaves the stories and memories of the people in the city with Laura's struggles to survive.

The Brief History of the Dead is a fast, engaging read that offers quite a fascinating look into the afterlife. The premise is very clever and one of the most attractive features. It is easy to tell that a lot of thought was put into the development of this concept. At times, I found myself contemplating many of the philosophical questions that continually arise throughout the narrative.The overall writing style was pretty succinct, with an almost dreamlike feel. The author does a good job creating the City, though I do wish he had gone into a little more detail. For example, why do the citizens go to work every day, especially doing the same occupation they did on Earth? Seems to me that work would be the last thing I would want to do once I'm dead. While I thought most of Laura's scenes of survival were chilling, I felt the author could have focused a little less on continually describing such a bleak continent, and more fully developed his imagined world.

On the surface this book is about death and the afterlife, but a second, underlying theme of memory begins to emerge. The novel delves into the question of what things or people the mind remembers and why. Both Laura and the City's inhabitants flashback to certain memories, some of which seem to be of little importance. There was definitely a focus on the interconnectedness of human beings, a sort of six degrees of separation. One big takeaway was the idea that you never know who you will affect in your lifetime or who will remember you.

While I did enjoy the The Brief History of the Dead overall, I did think it was slightly too short and felt undone in places. Certain characters needed more explanation as to why they held such prominent rolls within the narrative. Also, I felt that the second to last chapter, which was very existential and bordered on self-indulgent, was too disconnected from the rest of book. However, I cannot condemn an entire book on these terms alone, seeing as how they are relatively minor complaints. Besides, it isn't often that I complain that a book wasn't long enough, so I'll take that as a positive sign. If you want to read a book with an imaginative premise that is well-executed, then definitely look into this one.

Rating: 4/5


  1. Sounds intriguing. Just last week I reviewed Brockmeier's newest book, but I've not yet read anything else of his.

  2. This has been on my TBR list for sometime now. It's always interesting to see an author illustrate the concept of the afterlife when you've grown up learning about what happens once your life ends. It certainly requires much imagination. Did he rely on anything from religious texts, in your opinion? Maybe that's a vague question. Still, your review prompts me to continue as planned and read it. I really like the quotation your provided- it certainly draws me in.

  3. I didn't think he relied on religious texts to create his world. That being said, there was an element of Christianity, mostly displayed by one of the minor characters (an older blind man) in secondary chapters. This is one of those characters that I wish they would have explained a little more, as he seemed really out of place. Some of the others mention different religions/practices, but I didn't feel that it was integral to the overall story.


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