Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

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Reviewed by Annabel Gaskell

This book may have shocking pink endpapers, but between them is the most elegant novel of speculative fiction that I’ve read in a long time – and dystopian tales count amongst my very favourites.

We may be in the middle of the biggest epidemic yet seen of Ebola in Africa, but treatments are beginning to come online and stricter control measures will surely begin to rein its spread in. Ebola, however, is small beer compared with the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 which infected half a billion people, killing 3-5% of the world’s entire population. This strain of the H1N1 virus came from birds, via pigs to humans, starting in France. Flu is very infectious, and can be transmitted via aerosols in the air from coughs and sneezes – and could so easily be flown from one continent to another on an aeroplane.

This is precisely what happens in this novel, where a new strain of flu erupts over the Earth resulting in 99% mortality within about a week.

The book starts just as the virus is arriving in North America. Jeevan, a trainee paramedic, is watching a performance of King Lear when the celebrated lead actor has a heart attack on the stage of the Montreal theatre. Jeevan leaps into action, but Arthur Leander will die later, and once the doctors arrive, Jeevan doesn’t hang around to be thanked. His action though will become a touchstone moment for the youngest actress in the cast.

Meanwhile, a doctor friend of Jeevan warns him just in time of the pandemic’s arrival, and he holes up in his brother Frank’s high-rise flat with trolley loads of bottled water and non-perishables. Jeevan is one of the survivors, and over the next few days and weeks, he witnesses the turning off of society as TV, radio, computers, power and so on peter out.

No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit green from below. No more ball games played 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 pharmaceuticals. No more certainty of surviving a scratch on one’s hand, a cut on a finger while chopping vegetables for dinner, a dog bite. …

No more Internet. … No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room. No more avatars.

We leave Jeevan for now, jumping to twenty years later where we meet The Travelling Symphony – an orchestra and theatre troupe who travel around the settlements in what used to be the Great Lakes and American mid-West.

They’d performed more modern plays sometimes in the first few years, but what was startling, what no one would have anticipated, was that audiences seemed to prefer Shakespeare to their other theatrical offerings.

“People want what was best about the world,” Dieter said. He himself found it difficult to live in the present. He’d played in a punk band in college and longed for the sound of an electric guitar.

Amongst the actors and musicians is Kirsten; she was about eight years old when the flu hit. When they’re on the road, she and her friend August like to break into abandoned houses. Kirsten is always looking for old magazines and comics, and collects anything to do with Arthur Leander – a name from her past.

The troupe are approaching the township of St. Deborah by the Water, and later when they set up, they hear that ‘The prophet’ is in town. When it transpires that the prophet is looking for a bride for one of his men, a quick withdrawal is required. The orchestra leaves in a hurry, and their peripatetic lives will be changed and unsettled by this encounter.

We jump back to before Day One of the flu, to find out more about the life of Arthur Leander and his wives – firstly Miranda – an artist and the creator of a personal comic called Station Eleven, then Elizabeth who gives him a son whom she whisks off to Israel once their relationship breaks down.

Everything is interconnected and as the novel proceeds, jumping forwards and backwards, the jumbled threads between past and present get untangled and connections get made between the six people who are the focus of the story. The elegance of this novel is in how everything is woven together neatly, yet in an apparently natural way. Of course this is a novelistic contrivance, but it’s so well done that it seems to be mere coincidence, fortuitous or otherwise, when the key things happen – I’ve mentioned only the barest outlines of some of the earlier moments above.

The author has obviously thought a great deal about how civilisation would continue twenty years after a major catastrophe like pandemic flu. Her vision of this future seems entirely feasible and very practical. Sadly, as in every post-disaster novel I can remember, there will always be groups seeking to gain advantage, to set up their own little kingdoms like the misguided prophet here. There is violence in this tale; the Travelling Symphony had had a good life up until this meeting – but what happened afterwards? I can’t tell you, but there is hope, and I can recommend this novel wholeheartedly.

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Annabel is one of the Shiny New Books Editors, and although she draws the line at camping, hopes she could use her practical skills well if a survivor!

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (Picador, London, Sept 2014) 978-1447268963, Hardback, 335 pages.

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