You know that nasty cold that’s going around? People are putting it down to the dramatic change in weather we’ve experienced – when your immune systems suddenly compromised viruses are picked up easier. It’s irritating, it’s uncomfortable, it’s inconvenient, but after a few days of dosing up on meds and resting you’ll begin to feel better. But what if you didn’t? What if everyone around you began to experience the same symptoms, symptoms that begin to escalate rapidly, symptoms that are so severe that you never recover from them? What if, in more or less a flick of the switch, this cold takes 99% of the world’s population, marking the end of civilization as we know it?
That’s the terrifying premise of Station Eleven, the fourth novel by Canadian writer Emily St. John Mandel. Far from being an apocalyptic zombie thriller or an over the top futuristic sci-fi, this is simply a story inspired by the SARS and Swine Flu scares that terrified the world, a mutated virus that affects every person that it comes in contact with, and has a 100% fatality rate.
It begins with an ordinary death, or as extraordinary an ordinary death can be. During the performance of a revival of King Lear, Hollywood actor Arthur Leander suffers a heart attack and dies on stage. A Shakespeare loving paramedic-in-training jumps up from the front row to assist, a young girl playing one of the daughters looks on with horror from the wings, his lawyer is tasked with contacting the actor’s three ex-wives and in the space of a week nearly all of the people present to witness this shocking event are dead. Arthur Leander’s death is the lynchpin of the story, the factor that bridges each of the five interconnecting stories.
The narrative switches from life before the epidemic to the time of the immediate aftermath shortly after Arthur’s death and to twenty years later, where small communities have been established and technology, electricity and running automobiles have vanished or become obsolete. It emerges that post-Georgia Flu – named after the origin of the virus – North America has been changed immeasurably. Towns were abandoned as desperate people fled the virus, and those unaffected sought sanctuary in motels and service stations. The communities are small and fairly insular; there is an innate fear of venturing too far from the familiar and encountering potentially dangerous strangers, even though guns are becoming less of a threat thanks to the dwindling supply of ammunition. The exception is The Travelling Symphony, a group of 30 or so actors and musicians who go from settlement to settlement performing concerts and plays. Kirsten is one of the actors, and in a time before the epidemic was the little girl in the wings. They have few possessions apart from their instruments, basic weaponry and costumes scavenged from deserted houses, but each holds on to one or two items of sentimental value. Kirsten’s is an unusual comic book called Station Eleven, a gift received from Arthur Leander long age. It tells the tale of a space colony peopled by Earth’s emigrants after a devastating apocalypse, and echoes the struggles being faced by the survivors of a ravaged world. The novel takes its name from the comic, which is revealed to be instrumental in shaping the society of this new age.
An ambitious, complex and unusual novel, Station Eleven made the long list for this year’s Bailey’s Prize for Fiction. By no means perfect – there are meandering passages that seem unnecessary and the prose doesn’t always flow adequately – but the journey it takes you on is akin to a rollercoaster; up, down, looping around, with sharp bends that jolt you and smooth accelerations to a climax that fills you with dread. There’s no sugar coating here, no canonising the dead; in fact it brings up the interesting point that one person’s death is a tragedy – Arthur Leander – but the death of millions is a statistic.
It’s not just a cautionary tale, a warning of the threats to humanity, it’s not even one of survival, but of how life can change in an instant, and how priorities must be met. It’s unlike the average dystopian story, weaving together multiple lives that could have been. Harbouring the notion that no matter who we are, we are vulnerable, and in creating appealing characters and genuinely unsettling scenarios, Station Eleven will leave you thankful for all that we take for granted, be it our friends and family, art and music or running water.
– Aoife B. Burke
First published in The Tuam Herald on 29th May 2015