Rating: 4 stars
Emily St John Mandel’s dystopian novel Station Eleven was one of the books I received during my year’s subscription to the Willoughby Book Club. I love a good dystopia, and this one is well thought out.
A pandemic known as the Georgian Flu breaks out, killing all but 1% of the world’s population. Within a fortnight, civilisation has collapsed. Just before the pandemic breaks, a fading movie star, Arthur Leander, suffers a heart attack and dies on stage, watched by Kirsten, an eight year old actress. Twenty years later, this girl is a woman and part of a travelling theatre and music troupe. She has a mystery to unpick, in the form of two limited edition comic books given to her by Arthur.
The novel flits between Arthur’s story in the years leading up to the pandemic and the experiences of Kirsten in the years following. As readers, Mandel allows us to know more than Kirsten does about Arthur’s life and to start to piece together the connections between events that seem coincidental or puzzling to Kirsten. People and objects cross through time, losing their context as mass and social media, the things that increasingly replace the need to commit things to memory, cease to exist.
Broadly speaking, the pre-pandemic world is one of convenience and obsession with celebrity, with many people living empty lives disconnected from those around them, holding down jobs they don’t even like, pretending to be happy and successful. The post-pandemic world is all about survival, finding the things that sustain and enable you to get through, from friendship and community to food, transport, clothing.
The dystopia takes the form of petrol having run out or gone stale. The world has reverted to horse-drawn transport and has no electricity, so no entertainment. The troupe, known as the Travelling Symphony, moves between pockets of population, putting on Shakespeare plays and performing music where they are welcomed. Not everywhere appreciates them, which I took to be a commentary on the way in which the arts are currently being sidelined and seen as irrelevant. Culture in the novel is sometimes viewed with suspicion and hostility.
On their travels, the troupe returns to a town where two of their number had stayed behind after their previous visit, so that the woman could give birth safely. The couple has disappeared along with their daughter, and the town is now in the control of a man known only as The Prophet. The Symphony flees as quickly as possible after The Prophet asks for one of the troupe’s teenage girls to join him as his wife. Strange things happen on the road south, with members of the troupe vanishing and then the Symphony vanishing, leaving Kirsten and her friend August to fend for themselves.
The other key players in the story are Miranda, the artist behind the graphic novels Kirsten owns and Arthur’s first wife, Clark, a business psychologist who became friends with Arthur at university, Elizabeth, Arthur’s second wife, and the son they had together, and Jeevan, the trainee paramedic who tries to save Arthur’s life and who previously worked as a paparazzo and entertainment reporter who documented Arthur’s celebrity. They each have their own experiences of Arthur, and their own experiences of the pandemic, ranging from succumbing to the illness to living through the days of terror as the world we think is so permanent disappears around them. Mandel’s descriptions are level and her characters believable, there isn’t any hint of hysteria or hyperbole in her writing. That isn’t to say that it lacks power. It’s quietly gripping.
While I liked the aspects of the novel that explored the nature of friendship and belonging, I much preferred those aspects that brought a sense of jeopardy and uncertainty to the story. The tension between being a decent human being and the need to ensure your own survival felt very real, and made me think about the times society has been on a knife edge in terms of social unrest and rioting. It was easy to see how the collapse of everything we currently rely on, the things that hold us into a social contract, could lead to the sort of events that happen in the novel’s post-pandemic world. Ultimately, though, this is a hopeful book, with people working together and forming communities to ensure the survival of humanity.