This is a beautiful first novel. Set during the Chechen wars of the 1990s, the story follows the lives of villagers as they try to make sense of life during extremely uncertain times. The circle of characters and connections grows and re-connects in surprising ways as they try to survive amidst the absurdities around them. These intricately drawn characters will stay with you, sadden you, and ultimately give you hope.
As the narrative moves from the fatal heart attack, onstage, of a Shakespearian actor in the present day to life 20 years after a vicious flu strain wipes out most of humanity, Mandel creates an alternate society that feels very real. This is not, however, your usual post-apocalyptic dystopian novel. Amid the grief and fear, there’s a sense of hope, as we follow a traveling Shakespeare troupe as they perform, along with musicians, for small settlements around the great lakes. The conflicts that arise are littered with the detritus of our popular culture, as well as Shakespeare and symphonies. The complete isolation of each community as they grasp at re-creating civilization is palpable, and the desire for community rings out in the author’s beautiful prose.
In introducing this history of humanity, directed at young readers, Gombrich notes that history is often a sad tale that “offers little variety, and it is nearly always the unpleasant things that are repeated, over and over again.” Yet the writing manages to be hopeful and celebrates the positive accomplishments of people, while not glossing over “the unpleasant things.”
Let’s be clear: this is a history of western Europe for the most part, certainly a product of its time and place. But don’t discount it for that or for the fact that it’s directed toward younger readers. It is a wonderful narrative from a truly brilliant, expansive mind. Gombrich, whose best-known work is The Story of Art, was a young art historian looking for work when he wrote this book (in German) in 1936 in Vienna. Banned by the Nazis for being “too pacificist,” the book was translated into several languages early on. Gombrich fled Austria for England during WWII, and later wrote updates to the book. Gombrich wanted to do the English translation himself, and he didn’t get to that until almost the end of his life, in the early 2000s.
Read this and enjoy a riveting, beautifully written story of all the things people do while on the earth: the good the bad, and everything else. Better yet, read it with your child.