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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Book Review: Parisians – Graham Robb (Picador – 2010)

Graham Robb is an author and Francophile who has collected a shelf-full of awards for his books and it easy to see why as this book is an absolute delight.

Robb has taken episodes from the lives of Parisians, as well as those who may have been temporary inhabitants, and crafted these into a series of short stories in which the known facts are elaborated upon with a realistic imagining of scene and dialogue. The results are by turns entertaining, exciting moving and, often, just incredible.

Many of the characters are famous, for example Napoleon Bonaparte, Marie Antoinette, Emile Zola and Francois Mitterand. However, Robb has chosen tales from their lives that may not be so well known to the average reader. I found myself relying on Google extensively to find out more about many of the historical references.

Each chapter is a perfectly encapsulated distillation of history, drama and the changing face of Paris over the centuries. Each one can be read as a stand-alone short story, but the reader will be eager to move on to the next chapter and the next in one sitting.

In the very first chapter, we meet a young Napoleon Bonaparte experiencing the delights of the Palais Royal for the first time whilst in Paris to petition the government on behalf of his family.

The second chapter follows Marie Antoinette, lost in the streets around the palace whilst trying to escape with the King in one of a series of disasters that blighted the ‘Flight to Varennes’, in which the Royal Court attempted to seek a safe haven in the face of growing popular unrest.

The story of the deathbed confession of Francois Picaud, a humble cobbler who was wrongfully imprisoned but made powerful friends and became unfeasibly rich is a spectacular tale of complete and devastating revenge. This was one of my favourite chapters of the book and I was swept along with the adventure and amazed by the audacity and vindictiveness of Picaud. Alexandre Dumas based The Count of Monte Cristo on a second hand account of the confession of a man who said he had murdered Picaud.

Another highlight is the chapter telling the story of Emile Zola’s wife. The writing is expressive and atmospheric. We feel Madame Zola’s disappointment with how small Paris appeared when viewed from the top of the Eiffel Tower. The great city did not appear so all encompassing when viewed from a different perspective and if Paris is small, what does that make its inhabitants? This chapter contains one of my favourite descriptive images. Zola’s cottage is ‘squeezed between two tall towers like a victim of mistaken identity being marched to the commissariat by two hefty gendarmes.’

The chapter entitled ‘Occupation’ gives a child’s eye view of Nazi controlled Paris and is both eloquent and heartbreaking.

A more recent historical oddity is based on a hoax assassination attempt on Francois Mitterand. The almost farcical, embarrassing drama contrasts with the experiences of President De Gaulle who routinely faced genuine assassination attempts.

This is a very well written and immensely interesting book that I would strongly recommend. Not every chapter Is a jewel but there are enough gems to reward most readers.