So, you know that feeling when you are in a bookstore and by chance you pick up a book that sounds like it will really excite you? Well, so it was for me with Station Eleven. In fact, it fell into that rare category of books that I thought both I and The Husband might enjoy, a story with real heart (me) set in a dystopian future (him). There’s a standing joke in this family that The Husband will only on very rare occasion venture away from the tried and tested formula of a book cover with a cloaked figure and title in special typeface. If you can roll in some type of dagger and set it either a: the distant future or b: a far off galaxy, or ideally both, then you have reached nirvana. I say this in the best of humors, for I would be the first to admit that few and far between are the books that The Husband has recommended and that I have read, being enormously turned off by these factors. I also do a disservice to a man who does read widely and whose favorite author is Iain Banks, universally acknowledged as a great writer.
Let me start by saying that Station Eleven is an absolutely beautiful novel, albeit not the one that I thought I was going to read. As with all these things, I started by reading the fly cover of the novel, which seemed to place enormous importance on a ‘violent prophet who will threaten the tiny band’s existence’. Although such a character exists in this book, he holds no greater importance than any of our other protagonists, of which there are many.
Station Eleven tells a story that, sadly in this day and age, seems all too probable. The world suffers from a pandemic of the ‘Georgia Flu’ that wipes out most of the world’s population and takes with it much of what we take for granted in our modern lives. Phone networks, electricity, global transportation, access to medicines etc all vanish very rapidly, leaving the world a dangerous place full of looting and violence. The story oscillates between the onset of the flu and the world, as it is left, some twenty years later.
As I sit here writing I am of course thinking of our main characters and the roles that they play in this story. Emily St. John Mandell is a very clever writer, a woman who can seamlessly juggle many characters, keeping each distinct in the reader’s mind, even though we may spend only a very brief portion of a not particularly long book with them. Our story begins with the death of the fading actor Arthur Leander, who keels over during a performance of King Lear taking place in Toronto. He is the character in the book about whom we perhaps know the most, although he plays no part in the novel’s dystopian future. Leander is a huge Hollywood star, married several times, with a son living overseas. He is a profoundly unhappy man, who lost his way as his fame grew. Each of the remaining characters exists because they have some relationship to Leander, including Kirsten Raymonde, who was a child actress at the time of Leander’s final performance. She is the character who leads us in the future, as part of a travelling troupe of performers. Raymonde remembers her past and looks to the future, travelling through a landscape that is both bleak and disturbing.
Mandell’s writing is so eerily real that you spend the duration of this book, asking yourself what you would do if a pandemic happened tomorrow? Would it be better to die or face a future much reduced from the one you expected? The strands of the novel are so gracefully interwoven that you are carried along, back and forth, in and out of lives, in and out of time. It’s a novel, so clever and so beautiful that it ends up being unmissable.