So every now and then I read a book that is so utterly brilliant I want to stand on tall buildings and shout loudly at people that they should read it. This is one of this times.
Emily St. John Mandel’s dystopian novel, Station Eleven, was published last year to great success and acclaim. The book opens during a production King Lear. Hollywood actor Arthur Leander dies on stage, while a child actress watches from the wings. That night, a deadly virus spreads through North America and the rest of the world, and the majority of the human population is wiped out within weeks. Technology and governments subside, communities break down, civilisation collapses. The book then oscillates between the worlds before and after civilisation, between the lives of Arthur Leander and the people he knew, and the aftermath of the epidemic. Two decades after civilisation breaks down, we follow Kirstin, the children actress, now twenty-six years old and living with the Travelling Symphony, a theatre company who tour the leftover communicates, preforming Shakespeare plays – ‘because survival is insufficient.’
So, Shakespeare in the face of the end of the world. I had high expectations and I was not disappointed.
One of the things I so admire about Station Eleven is that it’s quite different from other dystopian stuff I’ve read or seen. I like that the human race is wiped out not by nuclear war or by aliens but simply by a disease. It felt more realistic, and more subtle, that some other apocalyptic works.
I like that it focused on the before and after, but not much on the disaster itself. We do get Jeevan’s experience of the weeks after society collapses, and discover a little about Clark’s experiences, but that’s not the main focus. The rest is all hints: the lost year Kirstin cannot remember, her instinct for survival, the tattoos on her wrists. We get personal and individual experiences, but never a broad sense of what’s going on in the world as a whole – but actually I loved this, because it feels right; in a world where all communication is lost, characters are of course isolated. They can only know what they experience. I like that there is so much we don’t know about the actual immediate fallout of epidemic. I find aftermaths more interesting than conflicts, and by showing us the before and after as Mandel does, we’re left with a haunting sense of what’s gone on in between. There’s nothing gratuitous about this apocalypse. The book is not about the drama of the end of the world: it’s about people and how they survival. So I like that we don’t join the story in the horror of Year One, but in Year Twenty, where life is dark and difficult, but things have started to settle down, where if nothing else there is hope.
Another thing I really loved about this book is its optimism. Of course this is a book about the collapse of civilisation as we know it, and it is at times deeply sad and sometimes frightening; but what always comes through underneath that is a sense of humanity’s ability not only to survive but to make that survival worthwhile – to preform plays while civilisation is in ruins, to find enjoyment in culture, whether it be Shakespeare or Star Trek, to grow communities and keep friendships, to find one another again. It is just so refreshing.
This may seem a strange compliment, but there are many things in this book that I almost feel shouldn’t have worked, and somehow absolutely and wonderfully did. It is a credit to Mandel story-telling ability that she so brilliantly does what few others could pull off. For one thing there are a lot of characters, and it’s hard to feel that any one is the centre of the novel. In the first half of the book Jeevan and Kirsten seem to be the most important, and characters such as Clark feel very much in the background; yet by the end of the book, focus shifts from Jeevan to Clark. I liked this. It’s effective because we get glimpses of events from so many different perspectives, snapshots that put together a full picture. Moreover, even the characters we spend little time with feel like real, fully-formed, interesting human beings. Arthur, Kirsten, Miranda, Clark, Jeevan, Frank – I felt interest in and sympathy for every single character. Even Elizabeth is complex. Even the Prophet is treated with some understanding.
Another aspect of the book that is so well pulled off is its structure. It isn’t remotely chorological. We start on the night before the virus hits, and then we jump back to twenty years ahead, only to go back to the past, to slip in and out of people’s lives both before and after. There are interviews and letters, moments dwelled upon in great detail and then decades skimmed over. And it works. It works so thoroughly and completely. I’ve seen a few reviewers say that they wished the narrative had stayed longer with the Symphony, but personally I feel Mandel strikes the perfect balance. I love the way the past and present are juxtaposed against each other, the way the plots and characters interweave and interact, in coincidences spaced and explained enough that nothing ever feels contrived. It may be partly because I, like Mandel, am an optimist, but this is, I think, out of all the dystopian novela I’ve read, the one I have most truly believed in.
All in all, I am in such awe of this book. It is engaging, thought-provoking, beautifully written and just so brilliant. I recommend it to anybody and everybody. You must read this. At once.
Greatest strength: I think the way Mandel explores what it means to be human, and the very personal and beautiful experiences related through the collapse of civilisation.
Greatest weakness: Nothing. I have nothing.
Let’s finish on a quote: ‘No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit green from below. No more ball games played out under floodlights. No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights. No more trains running under the surface of cities on the dazzling power of the electric third rail. No more cities. No more films, except rarely, except with a generator drowning out half the dialogue.’
And also: ‘Jeevan found himself thinking about how human the city is, how human everything is. We bemoaned the impersonality of the modern world, but that was a lie, it seemed to him; it had never been impersonal at all. There had always been a massive delicate infrastructure of people, all of them working unnoticed around us.’
Next week: Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
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