Kirsten is a young actor in a group known as the Travelling Symphony, a motley group of actors and musicians who travel the countryside from town to town presenting Shakespeare in horse-drawn carts. Unusually though, this isn’t a quaint seventeenth-century tale, but a thoughtful story about the state of the world following the outbreak of a virulent flu virus. Starting with actor Arthur Leander’s heart attack on stage in a Toronto theatre, we hop around from the time before the outbreak and head up to twenty years afterwards, following Kirsten and the rest of the cast as they make their way in the world. Slowly, we see how these disparate people are connected, and how their intervening years have treated them.
On its travels through the overgrown country the Symphony comes across a small town they had previously visited, and are arrive to find it in the grips of a cult led by a mysterious preacher. Sensing a worrying mood they quickly leave town in search of missing members, their new destination a former airport home to something known as the Museum of Civilization. The prophet has no intention of letting them leave, and the resultant journey becomes a threatening one. Arthur Leander is the central thread that joins everybody, a lonely actor in his twilight years who we see through flashbacks. He’s an estranged ex-husband to aspiring graphic novelist Miranda; a distant father to detached son Tyler; a reminder of a more sleazy time to ex-paparazzo and doctor in training Jeevan; an old friend to buttoned-down Clark; and a hero and an obsession to Kirsten as she pokes through abandoned houses looking for newspaper snippets.
It’s a very enjoyable read, and Mandel deftly moves through time and space without making the book feel overcomplicated and cluttered. An interview with Kirsten in the fifteenth year after the disaster acts like a hallway, as her discussion opens doors to the other character’s lives – and also poses some uncomfortable questions that are only revealed as the book draws to an end.
There are shades of Stephen King here, most notably in the ominous and cracked rhetoric of the oddly serene Preacher, while the setting bears some resemblance to the stunning tome that is The Stand. This is a very different book, however, as it doesn’t really focus on a big showdown with the evil villain and his brainwashed compatriots. Instead it skirts around the edges, showing how people keep going in a world so sparse and changed. Unlike most post-apocalyptic novels, this isn’t a book that focuses on the horror humanity wreaks on one another. Although we know terrible things have been done and are being done, this isn’t mired in gloom like The Road, instead focusing more on memory, nostalgia and culture. It’s about the feeling of looking back and losing something, whether it’s the absence of technology in the world; or the weary, more personal feeling of having let something go that Arthur suffers from. And that’s what makes this novel stand out in a world populated by Battle Royale and 28 Days Later knockoffs.