Wow. So how on earth have I managed not to read Emily St. John Mandel until now? Shortlisted for The National Book Award, this book has taken the US by storm and is rapidly having the same affect here in the UK so I am extremely thankful to Pan Macmillan for providing me with a copy in exchange for an honest review.
Having said which, I have really struggled to write this review. Normally when I’m reading something that I know I’m going to write about, I make notes and highlight sections of the text. I have more notes on this novel than I know what to do with and could quite easily have highlighted the whole damn thing.
Where to start?
What the blurb says:
An audacious, darkly glittering novel about art, fame, and ambition set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse.
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.
Which actually sums it up a trillion times better than I can. Emily St. John Mandel has produced a gem. Goodness only knows how much preparation she put in or how many notes she wrote – there are so many seemingly disparate strands to this story and I was determined to find at least one that wasn’t tied up and inter-related by the end. I failed miserably. Well actually, that made me far from miserable but you know what I mean.
Mandel has considered every conceivable consequence of a pandemic that wipes out 99.9% of the population; particularly poignant in these worrying times with the threat of the Ebola virus hanging over us: ‘And then came a virus like an avenging angel, unsurvivable, a microbe that reduced the population of the fallen world’.
The novel forces the reader to consider a world gone ‘back to basics’ – a life without the internet, without mobile phones and without computers yes, but also a life without running water, electricity, medicine and an easily accessible source of food. A world in which nearly everyone loses everyone dear to them; it’s almost inconceivable: ‘She was thinking about the way she’d always taken for granted that the world had certain people in it’. The reader walks in the footsteps of these characters as the survivors create a new world in which they learn to live, support one another and in some cases, love again.
The story moves from the pre-collapse era, to the new world, and back again. In this way Mandel artfully draws the reader into the lives of the characters and we feel their losses as keenly as they do. There is no explanation as to why those that survive do, and it isn’t necessary. I particularly enjoyed the exploration of the differences between those who have memories of the ‘old world’ and those who either don’t, or who were actually born in the new world and have known no different: ‘Kirsten found herself wondering, as she always did when she saw children, if it was better or worse to have never known…’. ‘“You see the way their eyes glaze over when anyone talks to them about antibiotics or engines. It’s science fiction to them…”’. An amazing thought, eh?
Importantly, and related to this to some extent, the ‘new world’ is not without threat. As we learn of The Prophet and then meet him, the reader can’t help but be reminded of descriptions of cult activity that regularly appears in the news. Indeed, one of the most breathtaking elements of this novel is the fact that everything it describes is entirely, and worryingly, possible.
This novel is a compelling, clever and intricately put together exploration of survival. An absolute must-read.
‘Hell is the absence of the people you long for’.
You can get the kindle version of it here: Station Eleven
And the book here: Station Eleven