‘No more Internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken…’
I picked up Station Eleven on a bit of a whim the other week in Waterstones. The clashing orange font on white background caught my eye, and the blurb said something about the apocalypse and Shakespeare, so I was pretty much sold (who wouldn’t be intrigued by Shakespeare + the apocalypse?).
The novel opens with a famous actor, Arthur Leander, having a heart attack and dying on stage during a performance of King Lear in Toronto. On that same night a deadly strain of flu reaches North America, which is not only highly contagious, but if caught means certain death within days. The world will never be the same again.
The book has a pretty interesting format, as it flicks between characters and times: before the collapse (as the apocalyptic flu outbreak is called) and after the collapse. The main character of the novel is Kirsten, who was a child actor in the performance of King Lear and is twenty years later, wandering around with the Travelling Symphony performing Shakespeare to the many settlements which have sprung up in the new world. However, the book also flicks between trainee paramedic Jeevan Chaudhary who tries to resuscitate the dying Arthur on stage, Arthur’s first wife Miranda, his friend Clark Thompson and Arthur himself (yep, even though he dies in the first chapter!).
This book was not at all what I had expected: I had assumed that it being technically ‘post-apocalyptic fiction’ it would be very science fictiony, but it was much closer to literary fiction. The Georgia flu which decimates a huge percentage of the world’s population, and leads to the failure of modern conveniences like electricity, is actually the smallest part of the novel – its focus is more on the individual human experience, modern life and art. And I absolutely loved it!
Whilst you would think the flicking between people, place and time would be disorientating and hard to follow, Mandel’s curious writing style makes it instantly clear where/when you are immediately, yet in an unobtrusive way.
I also liked how everything time related revolves around ‘the collapse’. For example, the years after the collapse are no longer ‘2014’ ‘2015’ etc., but are Year One, Year Two etc. And the sections before the collapse often give ominous glimpses into the future – eg. ‘of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city’ – or facts relating to the collapse, such as the flight a character took was the twenty-seventh to last flight ever.
I also liked the complexity with which the characters were depicted. Arthur Leander in particular was interesting, in that, although he is seldom seen first hand, he is central to the novel, and is somehow interlinked with all the other characters. He is seen in the novel young, middle-aged and old (not necessarily in that order), and I liked that you could see a perceptible change in him throughout his lifespan. Whilst he is carefree and kind as a youngster, when he gets older and is more famous his close friends often tend to feel like he is still acting when he is around him, and the real Arthur becomes shrouded and hard to make out.
I also really liked Kirsten, as what you could technically describe as ‘the heroine’. She’s fairly bold, brave and outspoken, yet it isn’t too much – ie. she isn’t the typical ‘strong female lead’ that you see in so much popular fiction today (basically, she isn’t a Katniss!).
It’s also pretty weird to see the modern world as alien through her eyes – she was only a child when the collapse happened, and so has spent the majority of her life in a world with no electricity, no internet or any of the other modern comforts we now take for granted. Her and her generation in particular are completely baffled by the idea of phones and being able to communicate across the world, and the idea of the World Wide Web, which is something we use pretty much everyday without even thinking about it. It makes you wonder what we would actually do if something like this happened, and we no longer had access to all these things!
This book was not what I expected at all, but was so much better than I could ever have imagined! Deeply imaginative, introspective and completely unique, it raises so many questions about modern life and the way we live now. The neat way in which all the narratives revolve around both Arthur Leander and their distance to or from the collapse is also really well done, and works completely for the story, rather than having just been used as a gimmicky, literary fiction device. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone, even if you are not a fan of sci-fi, as the apocalyptic setting is really just a backdrop for a deeply human story.