Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Book Review)
Emily St. John Mandel is a writer of extreme warmth and skill. She manages to create such evocative and vivid landscapes with her prose, and has a seemingly inexhaustible penchant for creating varied characters strong enough to walk off of the page and into the real world. All of that makes for an evocative read, especially when the subject is of a world caught up in a post-apocalyptic nightmare created by a pandemic of flu that no one not immune can hope to survive. But of course there are characters that survive due to a natural immunity, and they are the ones who find themselves on both sides of the coin, the world before and after the end of life, as we know it.
The story begins with an ageing actor called Arthur Leander who is performing King Lear in a theatre. He is a very famous actor who has appeared in many films, but now is concentrating on stage work, a place we find that he is most happy. This is a wonderful place for the story to start, and the tragic event that unfolds on the stage is handled so brilliantly, that it serves as a wonderful opening scene to wet are appetite for what is to come, for a journey that will take us back and forth between civilisation and a world where all the lights have gone off. Such a story idea is not new, in fact some might say that the apocalyptic genre is overdone, but we are fascinated by the idea that such a thing could happen, and when it’s written well it can be a pleasure to roam around in such a reality, if only to exercise a cathartic need to temporarily rid this world of its rules, to see what humanity would do if it had to revert back to a time before electricity and technology, to survive off of the land ourselves, without mass production of food and the amenities that we take for granted.
Directly after the stage death of Arthur Leander, we are thrust into the world of the Travelling Symphony, made up of an acting troupe and musicians. They travel around the country performing Shakespeare plays, and among the troupe is Kirstin Raymonde, the girl actress who witnessed Arthur Leander’s death on stage before the tragic pandemic took over. She barely remembers his death, or the time before everything went dark, but as the story unfolds she is one of the living links of before and after. In fact every character in the story has links with Leander, and although each character is solid and well crafted, they all serve to illuminate who the great actor was, and by following these other characters we get to see so many sides to the brave new world they inhabit. The Travelling Symphony is both a literal and figurative journey through such a world where there is danger from religious people who worship prophets as gods, and at every turn we see the destructive ways that a society can destroy itself, even after it has already met its demise.
Towards the end of the book, we learn that society is very slow to recover from the pandemic, and Mandel takes giant leaps, both in imagination and timelines, to show us what can happen to people over time, but in this she is perhaps a little too harsh on the ability of the human spirit to overcome and spring back from indifference and hardship. It is a strange anomaly in a novel that otherwise is so well considered, and for the most part believable. The fact a society could spring up in an airport of indefinitely delayed flights, and stay there for twenty odd years without trying to move on is slightly surreal and would seem more at home in a JG Ballard tale of post-apocalyptic doom, than this.
But that doesn’t negate or diminish what is a wonderful tale to behold, and a wide expansive one full of characters so well rendered, you feel they could walk straight off of the page. Her powers of description are remarkable; I was frequently surprised at how such a few well-chosen words could transport me to places of such depth and clarity. Not one scene goes by without adding to the dense foliage of this world, or to the drama of its characters, and in the end we rather fittingly start to see glimpses of light from the dark, as a subtle hint that eventually society can come back from the brink, and the survivors of such a calamity, no matter how few in number, can eventually overcome hardship, the way nature eventually gives us a helping hand out of the darkness.