Monday, 8 September 2014

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

published 2014




What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty. Twilight in the altered world, a performance of A Midsummer’s Night Dream in a parking lot in the mysteriously named town of St Deborah by the Water, Lake Michigan shining half a mile away. Kirsten as Titania, a crown of flowers on her close-cropped hair.



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Lin shook out her fairy costume, a silver cocktail dress that shimmered like the scales of a fish, and a cloud of dust rose into the air. “Graves,” she said. “I can’t even begin to - ”
“Not graves,” Dieter said. “Grave markers.”
“Towns change.” Gil leaned on his cane by the third caravan, gazing at the buildings and gardens of St Deborah by the Water, at the haze of wildflowers along the edges of the road. The McDonald’s sign caught the last of the sunlight. “We couldn’t have predicted.”
“There could be an explanation,” the third cello said, doubtful. “They could have left and, I don’t know, someone thought they were dead?”…




observations: Station Eleven is terrifying, disorienting, enthralling, creepy and life-affirming. It deals with the aftermath of a deadly flu, which wipes out 99% of the population and leaves civilization as we know it destroyed. The main characters we follow are, above, a group of travelling musicians and actors who bring music and Shakespeare to the tiny unconnected communities they can reach on their travels. There is no electricity, no communications, no petrol engines, no rule of law. There are also flashbacks telling stories of the characters before this devastation. It’s all thrown in together, the story jumping around all over the place. Normally most of these characteristics (dystopia, post-apocalyptic disaster, dysfunctional time schemes, disturbed characters and other dis-dys-related features) would completely put me off a book, but this time it worked. Right from the opening pages the author pushes you in and you recognize good immediate writing: hours before the plague hits, an actor – a famous Hollywood movie star- playing King Lear dies on stage. Characters are suddenly there with you: ‘Jeevan’s understanding of disaster preparedness was based entirely on action movies, but on the other hand he’d seen a lot of action movies.’

Mandel can describe modern everyday life really well: from Calvin and Hobbes to the woman who ‘seems to be someone who mistakes rudeness for intellectual rigour’ to the executives who are ‘high-functioning sleepwalkers essentially’. And yet she also gives a very convincing picture of what life might be like after the disaster – even though a little bit of you is saying ‘but really, would everything disappear? And after 20 years nothing would have come back? Really?’ In the end you just let her run with it, because she is such an extraordinary writer and this is an extraordinary book: unnerving, disconcerting, and very very memorable – one of the best I’ve read this year.

A little girl and a snowglobe are important in the story, as they were in this Christmas short story, where we first used this picture:



The pictures are of dancer Isadora Duncan playing the first fairy in Midsummers Night Dream, and PL Travers (author of Mary Poppins) in the same play - first used on this midsummer blog entry.

8 comments:

  1. No threat to the non-functioning embargo here. Seems interesting enough, but I'm not a fan of this type of book, I think McCarthy's The Road has soured me for life.

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    1. Me neither, but I did honestly like this one. And I'd read it 10 times over before I'd go near Cormac McCarthy again....

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  2. Moira - I'm not usually a fan of the post-apocalyptic sort of scenario. And it does sound a little implausible. But I do admire skilled writing and careful character development. And there's something about the group being a Shakespeare troupe that just gets my attention. I notice a trace of subtle wit too. Hmmm.....I'll have to think about this one...

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    1. I feel just as you do, and it was only reading some intriguing advance reviews that made me want to try this, but I promise you I was really glad I'd read it!

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  3. After reading the Ben H. Winters trilogy and World War Z, I was gung ho for reading apocalyptic novels and went out and bought On the Beach. This one sounds perfect too. And she is a Canadian author (born there anyway) that I haven't heard of.

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    1. I do recommend this one Tracy, it's a wonderful book, and completely enthralling. I would love to hear what you think of it.

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  4. This is one of those books you finish, put down and just say, “Wow,” and continue thinking about for several days. This is a marvelous book, complex, clever and original, but it requires a bit of faith in the author to carry you through to the very-satisfying end.

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    1. That's a very good description of the book, I totally agree.

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