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The Brief History of the Dead – A Book Review

This could be great. I realise “could be” is a phrase loaded with doom in Hollywood; that every movie could be great, if only it had the right director, the right star, the right luck. But here is a great novel that paints a world as you read it. It is beautifully written, and at the same time (this is rare) it’s filled with moments that would work equally well on film. The Brief History of the Dead is – it’s true – not easy to categorise; it wouldn’t fit neatly into any one genre, but with its viral Apocalypse, its city of lost souls and its Antarctic survival story, it reads like everything What Dreams May Come could have been, if it hadn’t stalled in heaven… if it had grasped life.

Half the story is about a young woman who may be all that’s left of the human race; the other half is about a heaven where people carry on their lives so long as someone is alive to remember them on Earth. The young woman is Laura Byrd. She works for Coca-Cola. As part of a promotional trip to Antarctica, she’s on the fringe of the world when a viral Apocalypse hits. A plague known only as “The Blinks” consumes mankind. Laura survives. Somewhere else (since no-one calls it heaven), in a city of the remembered, everyone Laura has ever known waits, thinking of her. Snow, ice and despair assail Laura, but she’s stubborn, and hopeful. She won’t let go.

If I were Amy Adams, I’d beat down doors to play Laura. She’s in her early thirties, she’s got red hair, she’s alternately courageous, wistful, resourceful… always hugely sympathetic… It’s a great role. You get to be the last survivor of the human race – for real, no other survivors, no cheating – and you don’t have to fight zombies. You can play it straight, as a female Shackleton. Even when the effects kick-in (toward the end) there’ll be an emotional reality. True, you don’t have a love story in the source material, but it’s an easy fix (it wouldn’t compromise anything sacred). What matters is: you power the movie. Even the afterlife depends on Laura.

There are a hundred and one moments from The Brief History of the Dead that would make great scenes in a movie, but my favourite is the part where Laura remembers her last night with her older boyfriend, Luka Sims (it’s Chapter Six for all you book-lovers). Laura and Luka are stood on the balcony of Luka’s apartment, surveying New York. It is summer. Thirty floors below them, a girl loses hold of a balloon, and somehow – perfect happenstance – Luka catches it. He decides they should give the girl back her balloon. He and Laura take the elevator down and find her. Turning to Laura, as the girl walks away, Luka tells her, “You know, that may be the best thing I’ve ever done with my life.” And as you read it, you know it’s true. It’s the kind of simple, poetic, joyful scene that barely even exists in movies anymore. You’d probably need François Truffaut to get it right (though I’d love to see Peter Weir give it a shot). And that – to me – is the heart of the book: anything but despair. Even as the world ends – once you know it’s ending –you don’t feel “the death in things” (as one character calls it), you feel whatever nostalgia feels like when it’s your nostalgia, not someone else’s… that same warmth, that same melancholy, that same attentiveness to what’s past.

“She imagined death as a wonderful melting…” says the book. How can you not want to make a movie out of that? It’s true – there are many books where the words are so lovely you almost want a movie to honour them. But this is a rare literary book, one with a movie’s spine as well as a movie premise. There is drama in Laura’s story. We would root for Amy Adams (or, gulp, Cameron) as we watched her traverse the ice. And with the right director (Peter Weir), the right script (Me? hahaha) this could be wonderful. It’s a survival story – but about what survives, not how. I knew as I read it that parts of it are ethereal. It’s what it could be that’s clear.

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