by Emily St John Mandel
It is the near future. In fact, it is twenty years since a devastating flu epidemic wiped out 99% of the world's population and civilization as we know it collapsed. Without a national grid, petrol, food producers, or any civil infrastructure, life is very different for the few people left. They live in small settlements, fearful of outsiders, and this story is focused on a band of travelling musicians and actors who go from one settlement to another, performing Shakespeare plays.
The novel begins on the day the flu arrives in North America. Arthur Leander, celebrated actor, has heart failure during a performance of King Lear. From its dramatic beginning, the novel alternates equally compellingly between the pre and post apocalyptic world, following Arthur and various people whose lives entwine with his, contrasting their daily concerns and preoccupations before and after. There is the young man, Jeevan who performs CPR on the dying actor before stocking up with eight trolley loads of provisions to ensure his own survival through the pandemic; an eight-year-old Kirsten, with a bit part in the play, who manages to survive the flu and becomes part of the travelling troupe; and Arthur's wives, particularly the first and most interesting, Miranda. A young woman unequal to the public scrutiny of a Hollywood wife, she takes refuge in creating a futuristic comic strip, Station Eleven, about a lost space station whose inhabitants are desperate to get back to earth, which in many ways prefigures the larger story “about walking out of one world and into another”. The threads of these characters' lives interweave in and out and back and forth to make up a dazzling tapestry of a delicate and vulnerable present made especially poignant by our knowledge of its imminent demise, as well as a sampler of a world to come.
STATION ELEVEN is brilliantly written, totally absorbing and in many ways all too plausible. As Emily St John Mandel puts it, the book is “about friendship, memory, love, celebrity, our obsession with objects, oppressive dinner parties, what remains when everything is lost, comic books, and knife-throwing.” It is a cracking good read and highly recommended. It was short-listed for the National Book Award 2014.
Published by Picador, 384pp.