Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
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’.
Thrilling, unique and deeply moving, this is a beautiful novel that asks questions about art and fame and about the relationships that sustain us through anything – even the end of the world.
Regular readers of The Eloquent Page will be well aware that I am a huge fan of apocalyptic fiction. Its one of my favourite sub-genres, I just can’t get enough of it. It doesn’t matter if it’s un-dead shufflers, giant insect invasions from outer space, the arrival of the antichrist or a global pandemic. I’m always on the look out for a new and innovative interpretation of the end of the world.
I was hooked by the premise of Station Eleven immediately. Everything about this world feels familiar and easily recognisable. There is nothing outlandish about this particular apocalypse. If anything, this feels all too frightening real.
Kirsten is a fascinating character. We first meet her as a child, just prior to the global outbreak, and then again years later as a grown up. In each scene, more detail of Kirsten’s life is slowly drip fed to the reader. The harsh realities of being constantly on the road, only ever stopping for a day or two, make for compelling reading. It swiftly becomes evident that Kirsten is prepared to do whatever it takes in order to stay alive. She has a resolute nature and an almost unflappable inner strength.
One of the key themes explored in the novel is encapsulated by a simple tattoo that Kirsten has on her arm.
Survival is insufficient.
It is the idea that existence has to be more than just survival. You need to live, you need to strive to do better, to go further, to push yourself to be the best version of you that you can be. What is life without creative endeavours? In the world of Station Eleven classical music, Shakespeare, graphic novels and even Stark Trek are used very effectively to highlight this continuation of the creative spark. The human race may be all but gone, but there is still room in the post apocalyptic landscape for art in all its forms.
The other character that plays a key role is Arthur Leander. Though not featured as heavily as Kirsten in many respects, Arthur is at the epicentre of all the events that unfold. Watching how other characters intersect with him, and because of him, and how his life is mesmerising stuff.
The most impressive thing though, is the way the story shifts effortlessly between pre-apocalypse, to during the fall, to twenty years after and then back again. It’s expertly done, but be warned, the fluid nature of the timeline will ensure readers will have to keep their wits about them.
I’ve been pondering how best to classify this novel. It’s a tricky one, alright. I suppose most will view this as a horror, what with a global pandemic and all. I’m not one hundred per cent sure that’s entirely accurate. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are definitely some horrific moments but there is much, much more Station Eleven than that. At one point yesterday, I was reading the book in a local coffee shop. I stopped for a moment and looked out of the window, just to watch the world go by. From my vantage point I could see many people going about their business, blissfully unaware of the fragility of civilisation. Emily St John Mandel’s writing clearly illustrates just how quickly the thin veneer of society can disappear. At one point in the narrative, there is a brilliant passage that lists a random assortment of items that are, post apocalypse, suddenly all gone or utterly useless. It forces you to contemplate the rise of rampant consumerism and how much we all rely on things like technology everyday*. If insightful social commentary like this doesn’t promote the some level of introspection in every single reader, then I don’t know what will.
My only complaint? Probably the same minor quibble that I have levelled at other apocalyptic fiction in the past. I just wish the book was a bit longer. The author has provided us with what feels like only the briefest glimpse of something great. I’m greedy and I need/want more! I suppose if I’m being honest, there may be something to this scaled down approach. There is undoubtedly a certain intimacy that I suspect would perhaps be lost if I got my way. Focussing on a small group does ensure that all characters are well served when it comes to development. Their evolution as they transition from the old world to the new is one of the novel’s many highlights. Some grasp on to the familiar with a vice-like death grip, while others embrace the new dawn for society with open arms.
It doesn’t happen often, but in this instance, words genuinely fail me. I don’t think I have the appropriate command of language that will adequately convey how much I enjoyed this book. This was a truly wonderful experience. Literary gems like this is why I started reading books in the first place. I would be more than willing to put this novel right up there with the likes of The Stand, Swan Song and The Passage. Station Eleven has all the hallmarks of a classic. As with the other titles I’ve just mentioned, I know for a fact that I will re-read this again and again.
As an aside, I can heartily recommend reading Station Eleven whilst listening to The Last of Us soundtrack by Gustavo Santaolalla. They are both cut from the same thematic cloth, and a perfect accompaniment to one another. If you’re going to be reading the best post-apocalyptic fiction, why not have the best post apocalyptic music to go with it.
Station Eleven is published by Picador and available from 10th September. Highly recommended, unquestionably one of the best books I’ve read in 2014.
*Hell, I already get panicky if I’m away from a wi-fi hotspot for too long.