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Thursday, 27 August 2015

Review: Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel

A post-apocalyptic world with a difference.

This isn't about kids fighting each other to the death at the mercy of the small, powerful elite, nor is it about challenging in the system while hiding within it.

This novel begs the timeless question about what it means to be human.

Arthur Leander, an ageing Hollywood actor, dies on stage while performing King Lear. That same night, a virus arrives in Toronto and, within a few weeks, 99% of the world's population have died. The story is constructed through flashbacks and present day, following the lives of a few different characters, whom are connected in fragile ways, but nonetheless their stories are in part bound up with each other.

There is the Travelling Symphony, consisting of musicians and actors, who travel from place to place to perform for free. While it might not seem much of a priority to keep up a culture from a world now dead while there are more important concerns - namely food, water and shelter - their reasons for doing so are summed up in a Star Trek quote: "Survival is insufficient." This group is the main focus of the present day storyline, where time is now measured in years that begin from the outbreak of the virus - e.g. 20th October Year 1. They come to a settlement which they have visited before, except now it is run by a man whom only refers to himself as the Prophet, convinced that they have been saved for some higher purpose.

The flashbacks follow the story of the actor, Arthur, whom works his way steadily from small-island boy to blockbuster Hollywood hero, and in large part his first wife, Miranda, who spends years working on her own comic book series, Station Eleven, after which the novel is named.

At first it seemed strange why so much of the novel tells the story of Arthur, and the world before by extension, but when a huge focus of the novel is on what it means to be human, and what it means to live rather than just survive, it's a harrowing and moving component. The difficulties and trials of the before and after are physically different but they still face the deep questions that humanity have sought for thousands of years to answer.

The writing is beautiful, mournful, even lyrical. It is philosophical without being pretentious, and the cast of complex characters drive the plot extremely well. You are caught up in their journeys, you mourn with them and understand - at least with the older characters - their wistfulness and grief for their former world. There isn't so much a longing to be back in the data driven world, with technology at your fingertips, so much as a trying to understand the senselessness of the situation they find themselves in. There is also the need to deal with how very small and helpless they are and were in the face of so great and deadly a virus that was impossible to survive.

When I was reading the inside jacket before starting the story, I was struck by what Jessie Burton (author of The Miniaturist) said, that it left her  'wistful for a world where I still live'.  That was true of my experience reading the book. I would look around the living room where I was reading, or out the window, and feel profound relief at my safe surroundings while not quite believing it was real. The novel reached that level of immersion.

Read it. It's an extraordinary story.

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