(Emily St. John Mandel, 2014, London, Picador)
I picked up this book at the library last month having always been intrigued by the title and the little white deer on the cover. It’s not had as many issues as it deserves so I’m hoping to remedy that by recommending it to everyone, sf fans or not, as this is a real beauty of a book with all the makings of a cult classic. I didn’t realise how popular it was with readers across the world until I did my little bit of research on it once I’d finished reading, and it’s nice to see it’s gaining popularity again during our current global pandemic! Station Eleven is the third book I’ve borrowed over this crazy period that’s about world-ending catastrophe, but it’s the only one I’ve read to the end. One was Sunfall (Jim Al-Khalili), about the failure of the earth’s magnetic field to protect us from the sun’s coronal mass ejections; great premise but not well written. The other was Year of the Tiger (David Miller) where a group of construction workers unleash a deadly virus while looting Japanese war treasures buried in Singapore. I couldn’t be bothered with either. I’m so glad I took Station Eleven home though.
The following review contains references to characters who survive the pandemic but I’ve avoided spoilers as much as I can. I hope you go grab this book from your library or even buy it from your local indy bookshop. I might get a copy of my own, I really love this book.
The world as we know it has ended, destroyed by a lethal virus: the Georgia Flu. Ninety-nine percent of humanity is gone. Technology is useless; there is no electricity or running water; there is no fuel: travel by land, sea or air is impossible. Many survivors travel in groups; they settle or keep moving, trying to rebuild a civilisation lost to death and devastation.
Sounds bleak. And why would I read a book about a pandemic during a pandemic? Simple: this novel is not bleak. It is beautiful, absorbing, hopeful and gripping. It mainly follows a young woman called Kirsten, who is an actress and part of a band of actors and musicians called the Travelling Symphony, a caravan of survivors moving place to place to bring music, Shakespeare and a little joy to fellow survivors.
‘Survival is insufficient’ is written on the Travelling Symphony’s lead caravan. It’s a line from Star Trek: Voyager, and to Kirsten is ‘my favourite line of text in the world’ (p.119). This brief motto is heavy in its significance in Station Eleven. It makes us think about what we would miss and want to recreate most if we lost everything. What is it to survive? Yet more importantly, what makes life worth living? The little band of the Travelling Symphony shows what is worthwhile in life: not only friendship, trust and the good fighting skills you need in a dangerous, wild world; but also art, music, beauty, memories and the strength to move forward. Every day.
The novel begins with the death of famous actor Arthur Leander, onstage as King Lear, as shocked cast, crew and audience watch. A man in the audience, Jeevan, is a trainee paramedic and tries to save Arthur but fails. Lonely, eight-year-old Kirsten witnesses her friend Arthur’s swansong. Jeevan and Kirsten’s stories continue after the sinister end of chapter 2 reveals that everyone else at the theatre that night would be dead within three weeks. The pace keeps building as Mandel creates a profoundly hypnotic and highly atmospheric novel that’s hard to put down and impossible not to think about when you do.
Surviving the Georgie Flu pandemic is traumatic enough for Station Eleven’s characters, but what of life afterwards? Jeevan speaks with a man who looked after his entire family as they died of the virus but survived it himself. Jeevan concludes, ‘You must be immune’. The man’s reply is brutal and gut-wrenching: ‘Yeah… I’m the luckiest man alive’ (p.192). Objectively, his survival means he can start anew and rebuild the world with the other survivors; but without his family, how much of him has really survived.
The interlaced stories of the characters, Arthur, Jeevan and Kirsten, also interlink with Arthur’s ex-wives: Miranda, creator of the Station Eleven comics that sustain Kirsten through her lifelong grief; and Elizabeth, mother of Arthur’s son Tyler, whose survival brings a new plague to the foundling civilisations of devastated North America. There is also Clark, Arthur’s lifelong friend, a peripheral character who gains increasing importance, and whose realisation of his job as a corporate behavioural analyst as ‘high-functioning sleepwalking’ complements the Symphony’s motto beautifully: ‘when had he last found real joy in his work? When was the last time he’d been truly moved by anything? When had he last felt awe or inspiration?’ (p.164). When did his life last feel sufficient?
So what then is ‘sufficiency’? Does it mean just having enough, or is it having an essential amount (material/spiritual/psychological) to achieve joy, awe and inspiration? What would it take to make you, me and the person next to us in the queue happy, or to feel sufficient? Like Station Eleven, the COVID-19 pandemic raises so many questions it’s hard to find answers to. But having the beauty of art, literature and companionship is sufficient for now.