Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

The front cover of the original book

I first read this book years ago when I lived in Liverpool and was in a book group. It was a great group, and most of the people actually read the books beforehand so the discussions were always interesting. This one got a general thumbs up, as I recall, because who doesn’t like a post-apocalyptic dystopian drama?

The author’s name came up in a recent article I was reading because she has a new book out, and in there, I found out that Station Eleven had climbed back up the book charts during the Pandemic, and now it’s a TV series too, so I couldn’t help but re-read it.

When something huge and life-altering happens to me, that’s a little bit scary and unknown, I don’t think I go out of my way to find books or films etc., that give me some more scary stuff to try and deal with it. But there are people who find films like Contagion or books like Station Eleven and ‘enjoy’ them. Maybe it’s a case of finding something that’s like real life but worse, so that what is happening to us doesn’t feel that bad after all? I’ve only picked it up now because I think (I hope) that the worst is past us. And the book does have a little possibility of hope at the end.

It opens with a play. A performance of King Lear where the leading man, Arthur Leander, keels over and dies on the stage with a heart attack. In a separate part of town, patient zero, infected with a virus that will spread and kill almost all the people in the country, has flown in. The whole continent and probably the whole world have been similarly affected.

We fast-forward twenty years, when the few remaining people are living an almost mediaeval lifestyle. A group of performers, The Travelling Symphony, whose motto is ‘Because survival is insufficient’, move from settlement to settlement with a musical and theatrical repertoire to lift and entertain the residents. It’s a precarious existence as there are bandits and other nefarious characters around, and the troupe has to be on its guard. One of them, Kirsten, has two inked daggers on her arm to denote the number of times she’s had to kill someone. It’s a different life from her former world, where she was a child-actor playing opposite Leander on the stage that night.

It’s a strange contrivance to have a central figure of a book die in the first chapter, but the irony is that he dies of something tragic but completely normal, at the same time as people are starting to die of the virus. The story flips back and forth in time, giving Arthur’s back story, and the patchwork of people linked to him, to this future, where an encounter with a gun-wielding prophet in a small outpost, leads the Symphony to make a perilous escape.

You have to suspend your disbelief a little to accommodate the fact that, given the poor odds of the rest of humanity, just how many of this patchwork of people survive. However, reading some of the comments on Goodreads about the technical implausibility of some of the plot, it appears I’m good at that.

I really enjoyed the book. The geek in me loved the references to Star Trek. Along with the motto for the Symphony (a quote from Voyager), there is that sense of them being a lonely star-ship travelling from planet to planet. The book’s title comes from a graphic novel created by Leander’s first wife, of a space station that looks like a broken world, floating in the cosmos, so giving us another internal metaphor.

There is a nice bit of drama that leads to an exciting denouement and the characters are well drawn out. So now that most of us have survived this Pandemic, it might be a good time to check this one out.

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