Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Book Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven

Written by: Emily St. John Mandel

Published: 2014

Day one: The Georgia Flu explodes over the surface of the earth like a neutron bomb. News reports puts the mortality rate at over 99%.

Week two: Civilisation has crumbled.

Year twenty: A band of actors and musicians called the Travelling Symphony move through their territories performing concerts and Shakespeare to the settlements that have grown up there. Twenty years after the pandemic, life feels relatively safe. But now a new danger looms, and it threatens the hopeful world every survivor has tried to rebuild. (from library copy's blurb)

The wren goes to't

If you had asked me what was missing from my literary life I don't know that my answer would have been "a mix of dystopia and Shakespeare with just a smidge of Star Trek" but there you have it, it's exactly what was missing from my life.

Station Eleven is very successful at crafting a story about a world 20 years after a catastrophic medical disaster that both conforms to genre standards and completely leaves them behind. I, personally, love books and films about pandemics that decimate the human population. I love to see how people adjust (or straight up don't), especially considering the world we live in today is SO dependant on technology to do even the simplest of tasks*. I mean even farmers who you'd think would be in a pretty sweet situation would probably suffer since everything from milking stations to combine harvesters are almost entirely mechanically self-reliant. So you usually end up with these fantastic explorations of society falling backwards in terms of education or mechanics but also progressing forward in a cultural sense, for instance, community becomes far more important for survival, and bartering takes over from the traditional monetary system.

And you get tonnes of this good stuff in Station Eleven. The Travelling Symphony makes their way through tiny towns where people have tried to adjust to this new world. Reminders of the old world, Walmarts and airports and highways, of the previous world still linger but they're rendered useless in their normal form so they're transformed into storage spaces or homes for the people who managed to survive. And like folk did pre-cars, trains and planes, they become pretty insular. They might hear news from the next town over, but it takes weeks and only reaches them if someone happens to be moving through. And with this insulation comes, of course, a level of superstition. News travelling from one town to the next over a series of weeks tends to evolve like a game of whispers, something fairly innocuous is slowly warped and shifted until it becomes a warning or something to fear. As a great deal of this novel takes place 20 years after the Georgia Flu annihilated life on Earth, a lot of the characters were either born post-flu or were so young they can barely remember the life they used to have, which only exaggerates this disconnect between the world that was and the world that is. Stories of planes flying through the air and told to children who are amazed and also slightly disbelieving of their parents tales. I just find all of this stuff utterly, utterly fascinating.

But where the book diverges from these more traditional aspects is where I think it truly shines. The book begins and ends on a stage in Canada as a cast perform King Lear. The death of the play's Lear on stage coincides with the beginning of the Georgia Flu but it was a heart attack and not actually the flu which ended his life. Even though this actor, Arthur Leander, dies in the opening pages of the book of a completely unrelated illness, he is pivotal to the book. The direction of the central characters, who haven't all necessarily met, are motivated by their relationship to Leander regardless of how tenuous that link may be. It's like this spider web of causality and influence and it's incredibly hard to explain here but it blew my mind. Seriously, I finished this book over a month ago and it is still blowing my mind how freaking gorgeous and complex the whole damn thing is.

Since I read it over a month ago I am blanking on some of the smaller details that I wish I'd noted down, but this book is really something else. I went into it knowing very little and that may be why it had such an impact on me. The writing is beautiful and yet it never got too flowery or Literary for the post-apocalyptic setting, a balance I think must have been incredibly difficult to maintain. The secondary characters aren't always incredibly fleshed out but because there's an element (or a feeling at the very least) of a play within a book I was able to push past those moments and instead appreciate the characters for what they stood for. There are large chunks of this novel which take place way before the outbreak of the Georgia Flu, most of them relating to Leander's life (which, damn, what a terribly sad story that is), so I wouldn't recommend this one to anyone who wants a straight-up post-apocalyptic tale but seriously everyone else, read it**.

*Obvs this isn't the case everywhere in the world. But since these books typically take place in the Western world I'm going to keep going with this.

** I think just about everyone in the world (blog world anyway) has already read it, but if you're one of the 10 people who haven't then GET ON IT.


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