Station Eleven ~ Emily St. John Mandel

StationElevenHCUS2Every 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.

The Severed Streets ~ Paul Cornell

SeveredStreets.jpg.size-230-188x300In the dog days at the end of last year I stumbled across London Falling the first of Paul Cornell’s novels about DI James Quinn and the other members of his team of London police personnel involved in investigating a series of events that no self-respecting DI would really want to admit were happening.  Cornell, a scriptwriter from Doctor Who, had taken the supernatural elements from his televisual existence and blended them with the well loved formula of the police procedural and come up with a hybrid that is perhaps only comparable with the Peter Grant series by Ben Aaronovitch.  That first outing for DI Quinn and his colleagues had its scary moments but it also had a light touch that had me laughing as often as holding my breath.  Now, in The Severed Streets, the second book in the sequence, Cornell turns his attention to much more serious affairs and compels us to look deeper into the forces at work behind those financial and governmental institutions that control our lives whether we like it or not.  You can read my review of this excellent second novel in the latest edition of Shiny New Books by following the link below.

Enemies at Home ~ Lindsey Davis

9781444766585Last week I asked whether or not authors of fantasy were ever successful in creating a second world with which their readers could readily identify.  I could, of course, have just as easily posed a similar question in respect of crime writers.  How well do we react when our favourite detective is ditched, even if only temporarily, for a newer kid on the block?  I don’t know about you, but however much I appreciated Malcolm Fox, I was overjoyed when John Rebus made a welcome return and while I really enjoy Quintin Jardine’s Bob Skinner novels, I’ve never warmed to either of the Blackstone series.  Jeffrey Deaver gets round the problem by introducing us to Kathryn Dance in the midst of the Lincoln Rhyme novels, so the two don’t seem so far apart; I don’t feel as if I’ve actually wandered into unfamiliar territory and even find myself preferring the Dance books to those set in New York. I can’t help feeling that if a writer wants to explore new territory then this is a safer approach; certainly it is the one that Lindsey Davis has taken as she chooses to refresh her crime novels set in Ancient Rome.

I have been a lover of Davis’s novels since The Silver Pigs first introduced us to that roguish but basically good egg, Marcus Didius Falco, informer to royalty and righter of innumerable wrongs in the Rome of the Emperor Vespasian.  In that series, Davis clothed her ability to construct complex plots and undertake meticulous research in a narrative alive with humour and sharp one liners and I feel that I have grown up alongside Falco and his (eventual) wife Helena and both rejoiced and suffered with them through the various triumphs and disasters that have befallen their expanding family.  Now, Davis has taken one member of that family, Falco’s adopted daughter, Flavia Albia, and raised her to the status of central character as, some years after her father’s final outing in Nemesis, she undertakes her own investigations in a Rome that is not truly certain it is yet ready for a female informer.

Enemies at Home is the second novel in this new series and it reintroduces us to some of the characters we first met in The Ides of April, most notably the handsome and remarkably honest, local magistrate, Manlius Faustus.  Faustus has been charged with finding a way of circumventing the laws of sanctuary after the slaves of a couple murdered in their beds seek asylum at the Temple of Ceres.  By Roman law, all slaves who fail to save their owners’ lives under such circumstances are to be put to death and given that the local vigiles, (who have a lot to learn from Falco’s drinking pal, Petronius) have failed to catch the actual killers, they are anxious to have someone in custody to take the heat off their own backs.  Faustus hires Albia to try and discover what really did happen on the evening in question and in attempting to do so Falco’s daughter takes the reader with her into the world of the Roman slave,  revealing the true iniquities of a system that found nothing wrong in buying and selling humans as if they were no more than a secondhand piece of furniture.

In focusing on a system that is bound to sound abhorrent to the modern reader, Davis could fall into the trap of having her first century characters exhibit emotional reactions that would have been at odds with their positions in the world that they inhabit.  However, she is far too good a writer for that.  Both Faustus and Albia themselves come from families that own slaves and throughout the course of the investigation they rely on people who have no say in their own existence whatsoever to make the wheels of their lives run more smoothly.  Nevertheless, neither are happy about the more extreme slave laws and in voicing that unease they open up the way for the reader to react against the practice as a whole.  When the truth behind the murders is finally uncovered a twenty-first century reader cannot help but think that perhaps the unlucky couple contributed to their own demise, but Roman law will still take its pound of flesh and Albia knows that there is nothing she can do to alter that fact.

I was uncertain when this series began how I would take to a novel that had no Falco in it.  I kept hoping that at some point Albia would recognise that help was needed, call into the family home and enlist her father to the cause.  I can see now that if Davis had allowed that to happen it would have been a terrible mistake.  Flavia Albia has to stand on her own two feet, both as an informer and as a leading character in her own right.  What is more, it would have been difficult to insert Falco into the action without also bringing a greater level of humour to the narrative and that would have been completely inappropriate.  While neither of the books is deadly serious we are in a very different Rome to that of the earlier novels.  Vespasian is no more and the reign of his elder son, Titus, has been cut short by what may well have been unnatural causes.  Now under the rule of the younger son, Domitian, Rome has become a place of fear, where anyone stepping out of line is likely to be dead by morning.  Falco’s bluff bonhomie would not only be out of place in this world, it would be dangerous.  Helena does well to keep him tied up in the family antiques business and Albia is safer on her own.  Nevertheless, in Enemies at Home some members of the old world do make an appearance.  Albia calls on her maternal uncles, Justinius and Aelianus, for legal help and just as the novel seems to be drawing to a close Helena herself arrives at an embarrassingly inopportune moment.  Perhaps when we reach book three, with Albia well-established as the central character, we may find that Falco is no longer able to resist the lure of the investigative chase and turns his mind once more to issues of Roman justice.

Rooftoppers ~ Katherine Rundell

STL1040KIDS_328906kThis week has been one of those periods when I have only had short stretches of time in which to read and so I’ve turned again to children’s fiction and have been laughing and crying over Katherine Rundell’s novel for, I would say, a Key Stage 2 audience, Rooftoppers.  

Rooftoppers is Rundell’s second novel and earlier this month it won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize.   It tells the story of Sophie whose life has been saved by kind, intelligent, but other worldly, Charles Maxim, when the ship in which she and her mother were crossing the Channel goes down.  As far as anyone knows Sophie’s mother was drowned and Charles takes the child into his own home and brings her up as if she were his daughter.  However, the evil Miss Eliot, representative of all those authorities who set out to bend the world into their own po-faced image, is not happy about the situation and when Sophie reaches her twelfth birthday it is decreed that she should no longer be allowed to live with a single man to whom she is not related. Desperate to escape being separated, Sophie and Charles take off to Paris in search of the mother Sophie is convinced is still alive taking with them little more than the girl’s beloved cello.

Does Charles really believe that Sophie’s mother can be found?  Probably not.  But as his maxim in life is the oft repeated never ignore a possible he aids and abets his surrogate daughter as she tries to tackle the French bureaucratic system.  When they are unmasked as renegades from British Justice (?) however, drastic measures are called for.  Charles cannot see any way forward but to ask Sophie not to leave her room while he continues the search alone.  Unable to accept this, Sophie finds her own way around the Parisian scene by taking to the rooftops.

Once out of her attic bedroom skylight, Sophie gains entry to a world inhabited by a group of intrepid children who have made the roofs of the French capital their own. Inspired by her own time as a rooftopper while studying at Oxford, Rundell explores the reasons that have led these homeless wayfarers to make their homes in the sky and the ways in which they manage to survive in what to most of us would be a perilous environment.

Do they manage to find Sophie’s mother?  Well, that would be telling.  But, whether or not their Sophie’s quest is successful, the journey is sublime because Rundell has such a wonderful way with language that no one who loves words can fail to be captivated.  Who amongst us would not agree, for example, that

Books crow-bar the world open for you.

Or wish that this could be said about ourselves.

His jersey was threadbare, but his face, she thought, was not.

And would not many of us agree that

most lawyers seem to have the decency and courage of lavatory paper.

I’m sure Shakespeare said something very similar, although possibly not half as well.

When Sophie’s anticipatory excitement almost gets too much for her we are told that

her heart was hummingbirding

and I, for one, am much reassured by Charles’ belief that

everyone starts out with something strange in them.  It’s just whether or not you decide to keep it.

Let’s hear it for those of us who opted to not simply keep the strange, but to nurture it as well.

Charles is full of wisdom of the very best sort.  As the story draws to a close he tells his adopted daughter that

It is difficult to believe in extraordinary things.  It is a talent you have, Sophie. Don’t lose it.

As far as I am concerned it is difficult to write extraordinary books for children but it is certainly a talent that Katherine Rundell has been blessed with and I will certainly be looking out her earlier novel, The Girl Savage and be putting in an advanced order for her August publication, Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms.

After the Bombing ~ Clare Morrall

cover40101-mediumI normally associate Clare Morrall’s books with my home town of Birmingham, so it was a surprise on opening her latest novel to discover that it is set in Exeter. Equally, in a year when many writers are concentrating on the 1914-18 conflict and its aftermath, it seemed almost disorientating to find myself reading about the 1942 bombing of that city and the devastating and long term effects that it had on some of those who lived through that terrible night and the weeks and months that followed.

Exeter, along with Canterbury, York, Bath, and Norwich was bombed as part of the Baedeker raids ordered by Hitler in retaliation for the Allied attacks on Lübeck and Rostock. The cities were chosen simply because they had three stars in the Baedeker tourist guide and Hitler wanted to cause as much destruction to historic Britain as he could.  For Exeter this meant one night of sheer horror on the 4th May, followed by weeks of waiting to see if the blitz would be repeated.  In an opening section that captures something of the terror those people must have undergone, Morrall takes us through that night in the company of a group of fifteen year old school girls and their teachers as they flee from the boarding accommodation at Goldwyn’s High School for Girls to their air raid shelter where they have to wait out the hours of darkness not knowing what they will find when the raid is over.  This is particularly difficult for one of the girls, Alma Braithwaite, because her parents are doctors at the Exeter hospital and she knows that at the first sounding of the sirens they will have reported there rather than taking any form of shelter.

In the aftermath of the raid the girls find themselves evacuated to one of the men’s colleges at the local university, their own premises having taken a direct hit.  This is disconcerting for the quite and mild-mannered warden, mathematics tutor, Robert Gunner, who has no experience of the female of the species and little understanding of the way in which the advent of the girls into his life will change how he sees the world around him forever.  The reader, however, does know because the chapters set in 1942 are alternated with others that take us forward twenty-one years to 1963.

In 1963 Alma is safely ensconced back at Goldwyn’s as a Music teacher and returns after the Summer break to discover that Robert’s eleven year old daughter, Pippa, is going to be in her form during the coming year.  Alma really is safely ensconced at Goldwyn’s because she has never got over the trauma she suffered during 1942 and has refused to move on, keeping the family home the same and returning after her teacher training to the school that has been a substitute for the family she lost.  However, Pippa Gunner is not the only troubling factor that Alma has to face as the new school term begins because the much beloved head teacher, Miss Dulcie Cunningham-Smith, who saw the school through the war years and beyond, has unexpectedly died and been replaced by one Miss Wilhelmina Yeats.  Miss Yeats has great plans for Goldwyn’s and they certainly don’t include maintaining the status quo.  Immediately battle lines are drawn as Alma feels her security coming under threat.

All three of the main characters have been deeply affected by the war.  The reader witnesses, through the 1942 sections of the narrative, the traumas inflicted on Alma and Robert and gradually the horror that Miss Yeats endured, returning to Coventry to find her whole family killed in the persistent bombing of the city, is revealed as well.  As a result none of them have been able to make truly deep relationships. Robert has perhaps fared better than either of the women, having married and had what appears to have been a loving relationship with his wife, Grace, before she dies in childbirth, but he is still aware of the problems he has communicating with his children and you sense that he doesn’t fully appreciate how to access their emotional needs.

Miss Yeats may have forged a successful career for herself, but her greatest empathy is for the American President, John Kennedy, and his death sparks a crisis in the school that forces much of the tension that exists between her and Alma, who emotionally is still caught in that summer of 1942, out into the open.

There are some very strong features in this novel.  Morrall is brilliant on girls’  schools in 1963.  I know I was there – two years ahead of Pippa, just going into my third year as the latter section of this book begins.  I was immediately transported back to those days and at times could swear I was able to smell the very corridors and science labs, not to mention the changing rooms and the showers.  She is also good on characterisation.  Here, for example, is the inimitable Miss Cunningham-Smith facing down a Squadron Leader who has been foolish enough to suggest that a breach of rules on the part of four of her girls has simply been a matter of ‘messing about’.

‘Messing about?… They should not conclude that this is an acceptable way to carry on during a war.’ She makes it sound as if a war is a passing inconvenience, a situation that has to be acknowledged but not allowed to take precedence over good manners… ‘Rest assured that action will be taken over my girls’ part in this. They will not escape punishment.’

‘I wouldn’t be too hard on them,’ says the squadron leader.  ‘I’ve been persuaded that it was just high spirits. We must make allowances for youth.’

Miss Cunningham-Smith stares at him so hard that he has to look away.

However, I did feel that the conclusion of the novel was perhaps too open-ended.  I had hopes for Alma but would have liked to have been more certain about the action Miss Yeats was going to take.  She isn’t a character to whom I could warm, but she had found a way to triumph over a level of adversity with which I could sympathise and I would have liked more of an indication as to which way her decision about her future was going to go.

So, all in all, not for me Clare Morrall’s best book but certainly one I am glad to have read and one that I can recommend, especially to anyone who has memories, as I do, of all girls’ schools in the 1960s.

With thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for making a copy of this book available for review