The importance of human bonds in a world short of people

Here’s a recent review I wrote for the Irish Examiner

Station Eleven
Emily St. John Mandel
Picador; £11.99
Review: Val Nolan

On a snowy winter’s evening in Toronto, a famous actor named Arthur Leander dies on stage during a performance of King Lear. As his friends and colleagues gather for a drink to process this event, the author tells us, with astonishing casualness, that “the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city”.

Because the night Arthur dies is the night the “Georgia flu” touches down in North America. Within a day this illness has overwhelmed hospitals and, before too long, the pandemic has wiped out ninety-nine percent of the world’s population. Goodbye air travel, goodbye internet, goodbye antibiotics. It is the ultimate Malthusian check and, in its wake, cities lie empty and survivors wander a desolate Earth. Yet Mandel is less interested in disease vectors than she is in characters and in interrogating the notion of interconnectedness, and that is the great strength of Station Eleven.

Thus when the novel jumps forward twenty years we meet a young woman named Kirsten who, as a child, was on stage during Arthur’s death. Kirsten is now part of a “Travelling Symphony”, assorted performers plying their trade in the string of small settlements along the coast of Lake Michigan. She is considered “the best Shakespearean actress in the territory” but, fittingly for a novel so concerned with the power and legitimacy of popular culture, “her favourite line of text is from Star Trek”.

Her story anchors this carefully and cleverly structured novel which dances back and forth between the recent past of Arthur and his various ex-wives, the near-present in which the flu strikes, and the world two decades hence which is slowly being rebuilt. In between, Mandel treats us to brief glimpses of the horrific years of collapse. Many will consequently draw comparisons with The Road by Cormac McCarthy but, though both novels emphasise the importance of familial bonds and the precariousness of social institutions, Station Eleven is the more generous work.

Moreover, the novel is built like a puzzle with Arthur at its centre, his greatest performance of all being how he ties together the disparate storylines. In the future, Kirsten collects old tabloid articles about him even as the Travelling Symphony finds itself on the wrong side of an eerie – and admittedly somewhat stock – religious cult; in the present, the man who tried to save the great actor struggles with the fact that civilisation has entered its closing act; while in the past, Arthur’s wife Miranda labours over an intensely personal art project, a comic book named Station Eleven.

Mandel reveals more and more connections between the different timeframes as the novel progresses but this never feels forced as the world of these characters is one of coincidence rather than fate. Though the symphony’s final confrontation with the cult feels rushed, the novel builds to a conclusion which is otherwise largely earned, one simultaneously sad and uplifting. It is a serious and realistic affair awash with unexpected “moments of transcendent beauty”.

There are shades of Stephen King (The Stand) and Douglas Coupland (Girlfriend in a Coma), but, ultimately, Station Eleven is entirety Mandel’s own thing. She combines the familiar crossbows of post-apocalyptic fiction with an astute assessment of how important stories – everything from the Bard of Avon to the bridge of a starship – are to the human experience in times of crisis. Her narrative is propulsive but her prose never loses the polish of a gifted writer. The resulting novel is, in a word, unputdownable.

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