Every now and again you come across a novel which is so compelling that the moment you finish it you simply want to turn back to the beginning and start reading it all over again. That such a book should exist is remarkable enough but that it should be a book you would never normally have given a second thought to had it not been for a chance discussion overheard on the radio makes the occurrence extraordinary. Emily St John Mandel’s novel, Station Eleven, is a post-apocalyptic tale. If asked to read this I would have said that I had had enough of the apocalypse to last me a life time, thank you, and passed. That would have been a mistake.
Mandel’s premise is that one of the several influenza variants finally causes a pandemic. While the catastrophe starts in the Republic of Georgia, the incubation period is so short that people fall ill while they are in transit between continents and in a matter of weeks the world as we know it has gone.
Arthur Leander is ‘lucky’. He is struck down on stage by a heart attack in the middle of a performance of King Lear just as the contagion reaches Toronto. In many ways Lear is a metaphor for what is to come. Kingdoms will fall apart. Life as those who are left have known it will come to an end. Many will not be alive to continue but those that are will discover the truth of the play’s closing lines:
The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young,
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.
Moving with ease between the period before the pandemic and the lives of the survivors twenty years on, Mandel explores what it has meant for those who have had to go on to find themselves walking out of one world and into another. Principally, we follow the fortunes of The Travelling Symphony, a group of actors and musicians who tour from settlement to settlement performing concerts and Shakespeare’s plays wherever they find an audience. Shakespeare’s works have been chosen not simply because of their value as literature but because the playwright also came from a time that was defined by plague and his stories speak to a people who likewise know what it means to live each day in the shadow of death.
Foremost amongst the troupe is Kirsten. Only a child when she appeared in that final production of Lear, she has brought the memory of the great actor with her, along with his last gift, two comics which tell the story of Dr Eleven, also a survivor after a disaster which has wiped out his planet and left him and a small group of followers striving to make a new life on a station cobbled together from what remains after their disaster. Art and life are intricately woven together, because as the members of The Travelling Symphony know, Survival is Insufficient. It isn’t enough simply to live. It is also necessary to try and make something greater out of the disaster. The fact that the quote comes from Star Trek: Voyager simply emphasises the fact that art travels with diverse person and in diverse places.
While there is no pretence that life is not both difficult and dangerous for those who have survived the pandemic, this is not the horror fiction that so many post-apocolyptic works are. Yes, there are occasions when those who only want to live out a peaceful existence are forced to defend themselves to the death, but there is no gratuitous violence and far more prevalent are instances of real empathy and affection and acts of pure kindness and gentility. This is supported by Mandel’s writing, which has a calmness and grace about it that encourages the reader to see the situation as one that has real grounds for hope built into it. Civilisation as it was known may have collapsed, but communities are surviving and slowly but surely a new way of life is being forged out of the wreckage. So much of this type of fiction seems to have been written by those who think little of humanity. Mandel clearly believes that for the most part we are pretty decent individuals. Perhaps I like this book so much because I happen to agree with her.
I haven’t read Mandel’s other three novels, simply because until a week ago I had never heard of her. I understand that this is something of a departure for her. Perhaps, with Station Eleven she has found her niche. Nevertheless, I will now go back and explore those earlier works because this one has convinced me that she is a writer who has something really quite profound to say about the nature of humankind, our relationship to each other and to the world in which we live. Station Eleven was a surprising and remarkable discovery.