Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven begins with a Canadian production of King Lear, starring the famous Hollywood actor Arthur Leander. When Arthur collapses on stage, a Paparazzi turned paramedic rushes to his aid, thinking about the strange connections that have brought him and Arthur together over the years- connections that have been significant to him and probably unnoticed entirely by Arthur. As he walks through the snow later that night to his apartment, he receives a panicked call from a Doctor friend, warning him of the speed and efficiency of a new type of flu strain. He prepares for the worst.

Elsewhere in the world, the Georgia Flu rips through the human race, spreading instantly from person to person. It's guessed that the fatality rate was around 99%.

Twenty years later and settlements of survivors are gradually developing. New, post-flu families are coming together and children are being born. Scavenging, growing crops, living communally in petrol stations and airports, rebuilding some sort of life albeit one without technology, medicine or electricity. The human race is depleted, but it goes on.  Station Eleven charts the historical and future paths of six key figures and the curious fingers of fate that hold them together; the actor Arthur Leander; Jeevan, the paramedic alerted to the pandemic in the nick of time; Arthur's first love Miranda and her mysterious artwork; Kirsten, an actress in the Travelling Symphony; Arthur's oldest friend, Clark who boards the last scheduled flight and the sinister self-proclaimed 'prophet'.

Firstly, I haven't enjoyed such an absorbing, believable post-civilisation novel for ages. The pre-flu world is recognisably mundane, the human race going about its business and arrogantly assuming that it will continue to do so forever. The panic, the disbelief and the fear inherent in any catastrophe is presented in a very personal way through the eyes of various characters, rather than from society as a whole. The reader senses the panic on the streets, but nobody truly witnesses it. The author really conveys how horrifically isolating surviving a disaster can be and raises the point that whoever you are standing next to at the time are the people that you are going to have to try to survive with. The post pandemic world is strangely beautiful, nature reclaiming the cities and human life much more communal and sustainable and in some ways quite appealing. I was absolutely swept up in this novel's world and events, the characters were brilliantly crafted and the way that their connections to each other was gradually revealed was incredible.

I loved the out-of-sequence format of this book, the jumps back to civilisation in the pre flu world and then forward to the different groups of survivors in different post-collapse eras. Once the reader assembles the parts in their heads, it builds up to a shocking reveal that draws the elements together wonderfully. There are so many delicate strands to this novel, all connected through decades that tie up in unexpected ways and at the centre of it all is Arthur, the man that dies in the first chapter. His life has a water-ripple effect that continues to be felt years after the end of civilisation when his fame has been forgotten.

I relished the value placed on art in this novel, its importance to any civilisation and the need that all human beings have for stories. Among the bands of survivors are the Travelling Symphony, a theater group slash orchestra that roam the Eastern territories of what was once the United States, performing the plays of Shakespeare and  musical concerts to the people of these settlements, because 'Survival is Insufficient'. I love that there are always some survivors that want to preserve what came before, that can't bear to see so much history and heritage snuffed out for good. I always wonder what it is that will come to define certain generations in the future, what will be remembered or rescued and sometimes whether or not certain generations will be lost forever.

The book was so elegantly written and so compact in its themes and focus. Every event is significant, every character is important and has an impact on the course of events or on another character's behaviour. The storytelling is absolutely gripping, weaving in and out of the lives of the characters and gradually tying up the loose ends. It asks questions about the legacy of fame, the different things that comfort and sustain people in hard times and the inestimable value of art and music, and does so in a way that is ridiculously compelling.

It's a beautiful, unique book that combines elements of The Year of the Flood, with its rural settlers and the fragmented structure, shifting backwards and forwards of the event that changed the world, with the nomadic storytelling importance of The Postman and the gradual return of the man-made to the natural world of Earth Abides. It makes you consider what lengths you would go to to survive and whether or not you'd want to remember and preserve what you'd lost or to begin anew. Faultless- an absolute pleasure.

Thank you to @SamEades at Pan Macmillan for the proof copy.

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