Book Review – Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Picador -2014)

Extraordinary book alert.  This book has attracted significant critical acclaim and it is easy to see why as it is entrancing from the first scene, which sees a famous Canadian actor (3 times divorced) suffer a heart attack during a staging of King Lear.  

The actor is Arthur Leander, a thoroughly likeable character, despite his multiple relationships, and the person who acts as a touchstone for many other characters in the book.  

Whilst Leander struggles on stage, a former paparazzo and aspiring paramedic called Javeen does his best to resuscitate the actor.  This traumatic event is soon overshadowed by news Javeen receives from a doctor friend who that the recently discovered Georgia Flu is spreading at an exponential rate and killing significantly more people than previous flu strains.  This sets the stage for an apocalyptic event in which the population is decimated and civilisation, as we understand it, comes to an end.  

We are introduced to the Travelling Symphony, a group of musicians and actors, who travel between the remnants of towns and villages performing Shakesperian plays for the sparse, but usually appreciating populations.  

The action is taking place around 20 years after the ‘collapse’.  We are introduced to Kirsten, who was a child actor at Arthur Leander’s final stage performance.  Leander handed Kirsten a couple of sci-fi comics about Station Eleven, hence the name of this novel.  

The Travelling Symphony has to hunt for food, fight for scarce resources and set up nightly watches to protect themselves, they are not just a bunch of  artistes.  There is friction within the group but also fierce camaraderie, interdependence and love.  

“But what made it bearable were the friendships, of course, the moments of transcendent beauty and joy when it didn’t matter who’d used the last of the rosin on their bow or who anyone had slept with.”

“someone … had written “Sartre: He’ll is other people” in pen inside on of the caravans, and someone else had scratched out “other people” and substituted “flutes”.

The lead caravan is labelled The Travelling Symphony – Because survival is insufficient.  Attempting to get to the bottom of what is important in life, what makes it worth living and what seems critical but is in effect inessential, is one of the main themes of this book and it will certainly make readers reflect on their own lives.  

In between the Travelling Symphony narrative, chapters focus on extracts from books and letters, mostly relating to Arthur Leander.  These reveal that, like many of us, characters had been sleepwalking through life, climbing a career ladder that has been leant against the wrong wall.  Prior to the collapse, the characters lacked meaning and joy.  After the collapse, people miss the comforts and convenience of civilisation, life is brutal, but the Symphony help to bring happiness and beauty into the harsh realities of daily life.

Whilst we would all miss running water, lighting, shops, the internet, how many of a us would actually miss the daily alienating grind of modern working life and the corporate bull that accompanies it?  

The Symphony stumble across a settlement controlled by a serene but brutally insane prophet and their fate becomes snarled up in his ‘higher calling.’  Kirsten and several of her friends become separated from the Symphony and must attempt to reconnect at the Museum of Civilisation’, their previously agreed destination, which is where the Prophet is known to have come from and still contains links to the long deceased Arthur Leander.  

This is a phenomenal book.  The story deals with a post apocalyptic world tenderly and realistically.  The characters feel real and we can empathise with what they have lost and their search for the real spark of joy in living.  The bigger themes may lead to some soul-searching within the readers which can only be for the good.  

Highly recommended 

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