A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I was in two minds about reading Station Eleven. In the bookshop I picked it up and put it down and picked it up and put it down. Why? Because it is a ‘post-apocalyptic’ novel. Now, don’t get me wrong, I realise this is a prejudice on my part. Other than a teenage obsession with Terry Pratchett, I’ve just never gone in for anything with a hint of SF/fantasy about it. However, since I read Philip K. DIck’s Ubik last year, I’ve been trying not to let certain types of description put me off quite so much and when the bookseller pointed out I had chosen three books on their buy one get one half price offer, I decided to follow her recommendation and finally choose to pick up Station Eleven.
Toronto, the present day. Super-famous actor Arthur Leander is giving a star-turn in a new adaption of King Lear. Part way into the 4th act, he suffers a massive heart attack and collapses onstage. Jeevan, a trainee paramedic sitting in the audience, leaps upon the stage instinctively and begins performing CPR. The curtain falls. It’s too late.
Unbeknownst to them at the time, it’s becoming too late for 99% of the world’s population as a deadly new strain of flu touches down in the city that same evening. It’s quick-acting; you’re exposed, you’re ill within 3-4 hours, you’re dead within 48. Jeevan, walking home after his eventful evening at the theatre gets the heads-up from a friend working in the local ER and barricades himself in his brother’s apartment, stocking up on water and canned food on the way. He and his brother watch the news constantly as days pass. First the roads become filled with abandoned cars, then one by one the TV stations go dark. The internet blinks out. The lights go off. Running water stops. Civilisation as we know it has ended.
Twenty years later, Kirsten Raymonde is with the Travelling Symphony, a band of travellers who move between settlements performing Shakespeare and classical music. Their caravans are adorned with a phrase from a TV show called Star Trek that was popular in the old world: survival is insufficient. Kirsten had also been at that theatre in Toronto the night Arthur Leander died; she was a child actor cast as a young version of one of Lear’s daughters, and had been 8 at the time. She barely remembers how things used to be but carries with her a comic book called Station Eleven given to her by Leander the very day of his death. She takes great solace in this story of a ruined world and the longing the characters feel to return ‘home’.
The novel jumps back and forth in time, following the unfortunate (fortunate?) Arthur from his late teens into adulthood and fame, seeing him through three marriages. He has one child, a son called Tyler, with his second wife, Elizabeth. Miranda, his first wife, is the author of a graphic novel called Station Eleven. The same one that Arthur gives to Kirsten years later. We also meet Arthur’s oldest friend Clark, who is tasked with breaking the news of Arthur’s death to his ex-wives. We follow all of these characters before, during, and after the flu outbreak, seeing how the end of the world as we know it affects them in different ways, and how they cope with the new world… if they survive. Arthur Leander may not had died as a result of the deadly virus, but his death triggers a chain of events that decide who in his tangled life lives and who does not.
Ultimately, Station Eleven is asking difficult questions about what civilisation is, and where humanity’s and art’s places are within it. What do you do when the world ends? Do you give up? Do you start a new religion? Do you try to preserve the artefacts of the time before? Do you just try to bring some joy and diversion to beleaguered people through theatre and music? And what do you do when your new life is threatened once again and how far will you go to protect it?
I couldn’t put it down. If you, like me, are nervous of the post-apocalyptic tag, then don’t be. This is a fantastically well-written novel that asks intriguing questions about what would happen were humanity stripped back to its basics. It is also, finally, an optimistic novel that doesn’t just look back into the past that was lost, but also forward into the future that could be.
Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (London: Picador, 2014). ISBN 9781447268970, RRP £8.99