Arthur Leander, playing Lear in “King Lear” on a wintry night in Toronto, has a heart attack onstage and dies during a performance. It’s an unusual staging which includes three child actors playing Lear’s daughters as children. One of them, Kirsten Raymonde, watches Leander die, without fully understanding what is happening. Jeevan, an audience member, tries to shield her. After turning Kirsten over to her minder Jeevan leaves the theater and walks home through the snow; during his walk he receives a call from a close friend, a doctor working at Toronto General Hospital. The doctor has bad news: an epidemic, a bad one, is breaking out. It’s called the Georgian Flu, and it kills most of the people in the theater that night, and in Toronto, and in the world.
Much – but not all – of the story takes place 20 years later. The scattered survivors live in villages, tending crops and telling their children stories of life before. There are a few travelling peddlers, and there’s the Traveling Symphony, which wanders from town to town, its members doubling as musicians and actors – they also perform the plays of Shakespeare. Kirsten Raymonde is among them; Kirsten combs old gossip magazines for pictures and stories about Arthur Leander, his ex-wives, and his son, Tyler, who is about her age. But Kirsten, and the other travellers, don’t have much time for anything but hunting, work, and staying alive. The roads are dangerous, and when the Traveling Symphony moves it moves under arms.
Mandel creates an eerie but entirely credible world, with overgrown highways packed with cars, some with skeletons still sitting inside. Abandoned houses are common, but finding one that has not yet been ransacked is rare, and when that happens there’s not much left that’s usable (candles, sugar, maybe, containers. Gossip magazines. Musical instruments.) But it’s the living who are the most terrifying. When the Traveling Symphony returns after two years to a town called St. Deborah by the Water, where they left two of their members, the residents are docile. Symphony members are trailed by children whenever they go. The only sign of the two musicians, a married and pregnant couple, is a marker in the church graveyard with their names and a curious symbol: a t with two crossbars. It’s the symbol of a cult, whose leader has come to St. Deborah by the Water.
Mandel intersperses her tale of a dystopian future with various characters’ life stories from before the calamity. The movement back and forth in time, in place, and in point of view make for a textured novel. The scenes in which people react to the pandemic – the TV announcers stuck in the studio telling their loved ones to flee, the collapse of the electrical grid, the grounded flights – strike a fully plausible note. The surviving texts are an odd conglomeration of human knowledge: Shakespeare, of course, the Bible, some musical scores and some comic books, Kirsten’s gossip magazines, and the slogan painted on the side of the Traveling Symphony’s caravans: “Because survival is insufficient.” That idea applies to books as well as people: We need books, but without reflection we won’t fully understand what’s on the page in front of us.
The comic book contains a caption “I stood looking over my damaged home and tried to forget the sweetness of life on Earth.” Substitute life as a king for the last two words, and you have Lear’s predicament. You might think it would be a mistake for a novelist to kill off her central character in the first page of a novel, at least one that’s not a murder mystery, but Arthur Leander keeps turning up. He’s a student, a friend, a father, a husband. He connects most of the characters, and many of the objects in this lucid and compelling novel.
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