Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel

The cover of Station Eleven (this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award winner) suffers from a bad case of adjective blight.  The blurbs on the cover and first few pages of the novel variously describe it as “stunning”, “atmospheric”, “disturbing, inventive and exciting”, “captivating”, “haunting”, “spellbinding” and many more.  Having now finished the novel I can see why those reviewing and blurbing it have resorted to quite so many adjectives.  It is a beautiful book, but a slippery one to get hold of.

Prosaically, Station Eleven charts the interconnected stories of the survivors of Georgia Flu, a particularly virulent flu virus that has wiped out 99.9% of the population of the Earth, leading to the devastation of civilisation.  Survivors huddle together in small settlements surrounded by the wreckage of the 21st Century, living as subsistence farmers and consumed with nostalgia for the artefacts of a past that their children cannot conceive of.

Post-flu, the world is a dangerous place, full of brigands and messianic cults.  But the Travelling Symphony – a touring group of actors and musicians – aims to keep the crowning artistic creations of civilisation alive.  One of their number, Kirsten, is the primary focus of the novel as she seeks to find links to a defining incident in her childhood – the collapse and death of a noted actor onstage in a production of King Lear where she was a child actress, the very night that Georgia Flu hit the city in which she was performing.

Station Eleven illustrates, with great delicacy and restraint, the fragility of 21st Century human civilisation.  For all that we live disconnected from one another, often misunderstanding each other or struggling to get along, we are interconnected and dependent on each other at a fundamental level.  That civilisation is a house of cards that could very easily collapse, and is difficult to put back together.

But the novel also carries threads of hope.  In amongst the brutality lie friendships and aspiration for a better future, and the hope of redemption.

Goodreads rating: 5*

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