Title: Station Eleven
Author: Emily St John Mandel
Genre: Post Apocalyptic Literary
Summary (from Goodreads)
The Georgia Flu explodes over the surface of the earth like a neutron bomb.
News reports put the mortality rate at over 99%.
Civilization has crumbled.
A band of actors and musicians called the Travelling Symphony move through their territories performing concerts and Shakespeare to the settlements that have grown up there. Twenty years after the pandemic, life feels relatively safe.
But now a new danger looms, and he threatens the hopeful world every survivor has tried to rebuild.
Moving backwards and forwards in time, from the glittering years just before the collapse to the strange and altered world that exists twenty years after, Station Eleven charts the unexpected twists of fate that connect six people: famous actor Arthur Leander; Jeevan – warned about the flu just in time; Arthur’s first wife Miranda; Arthur’s oldest friend Clark; Kirsten, a young actress with the Travelling Symphony; and the mysterious and self-proclaimed ‘prophet’.
By all rights, I shouldn’t have enjoyed this book. Okay, Post Apocalyptia, killer flus, survival, post-human civilisation – I’m all over that – but Station Eleven has a much more literary sensibility than its subject matter would suggest.
There weren’t even any explosions.
Hopping through time either side of Day One – the day Arthur Leander dies, but also the day the Georgia Flu takes hold of America and Canada – this book is much more about art, celebrity and relationships than it is about the trappings of Post Apocalyptic life.
The transition from glitzy Hollywood to St Deborah by the Water, post apocalyptic town in the sway of a ‘Prophet’, should be jarring. But there’s something very gentle about the way Mandel writes – it’s a bit like the tiny waves on a beach washing over your feet, soft and pleasant, and you don’t think that much about it, except you want it to keep happening.
Then, before you know it, you’re sucked in. As the seemingly disparate threads of the characters lives start to connect, you start to see the tapestry of the story for what it is – a beautiful interconnected picture of the senselessness of life at large, and how humanity creates meaning through art and love. How those things, when done right are a force for good, but also how easily they can be corrupted.
I confess, I guessed the identity of the Prophet based on the law of novels, films and TV shows – every character is Someone. And there were only so many Someones that the Prophet could be. But then the interest became ‘well how did that happen’ and the explanation wasn’t disappointing. As conflict and tension went, this was really the only biggy in the story, beyond the tension of the flu outbreak. But due to the time-hopping nature of the story, you know who survives and who doesn’t pretty much straight away, and there isn’t much time spent on the ‘how did we get from a to b’ parts of the flu survival story for most of the characters.
There’s plenty of imagery of the horror of the flu and the days immediately after Day One. Jeevan’s desperate rush through the supermarket to buy twenty-odd trolleys of stuff for him and his brother is rendered utterly heartbreaking later on when the supplies run out and they realise that there’s no way they can go on surviving together. The plane at The Museum of Civilisation that stands locked up and separated from the rest of the airport after someone aboard made the brave decision to trap the contagion they carried inside it. The tattoos of knives on the wrists of travellers that represent the number of people they’ve killed.
But there’s also a thread of hope. The joy of art and performance. The chance of meeting someone who makes life worthwhile. An inventor powering a laptop with a bicycle.
I wouldn’t describe Station Eleven as a story, more a study of the characters within it. Those who live on, those who are doomed to lose their lives in the flu – they each have something to say or demonstrate about life and the art of living. And it’s probably an incredibly accurate representation of how, in our global society, disparate lives can be so utterly interconnected.
So, a departure from my usual reading style, but one I’ve enjoyed enormously. Clever, observant and something I think will stick with me for a long time.