Emily St John Mandel wrote Station Eleven in 2014, eleven years post SARS, but well before our present pandemic. I read it a few weeks ago and hesitated to publish my comments, as it concerns a pandemic which has wiped out 99% of the population of the world. It is our current situation greatly multiplied, but still her key hopeful ideas remain true. That the arts and music keep society alive, as does remembering or somehow piecing together our history. But above all it is the cooperation of the tribe that makes life start again and where meaning is generated.
On a snowy night in Canada the famous actor Arthur Leander is playing King Lear when things begin to go wrong.
“The wren goes to’t, ” Arthur whispered, and Jeevan, who knew the play very well, realized that the actor had skipped back twelve lines. “The wren…”p.3
Jeevan Chaudhary is in the audience and can see the actor is in trouble. He forces his way on to the stage to attend to him.
But on that night a catastrophe strikes that will effect the whole population of the city and the world.
We next see Jeevan after his world has collapsed.
It was becoming more difficult to hold on to himself. He tried to keep up a litany of biographical facts as he walked, trying to anchor himself to this life, to this earth. My name is Jeevan Chaudhary. I was a photographer and then I was going to be a paramedic. My parents were George of Ottawa and Amala of Hyderabad. I was born in the Toronto suburbs. I had a house on Winchester Street. But these thoughts broke apart in his head and were replaced by strange fragments: This is my soul and the world unwinding, this is my heart in the still winter air. Finally, whispering the same two words over and over: “Keep walking. Keep walking. Keep walking.” He looked up and met the eyes of an owl, watching him from a snow-laden branch. p. 194
Jeevan is walking away from the catastrophe. All he can do is walk. A lethal virus, the Georgia Flu, originating in Russia where efforts were made to hide it from the rest of the world, has struck killing 99% of the world’s population. The disease is sudden and fast in its deadly effects. All the familiar comforts of modern life are gone: no Internet, no television, no transport, no electricity, no petrol. The highways are choked with abandoned cars. Only small numbers of survivors create a life for themselves and it is one of these groups that plays a central role in this story.
The Traveling Symphony is a performing group formed by some of the survivors of the theatre company Arthur Leander was performing with, and his life is woven through the narrative. They perform music and Shakespeare, traveling to the small settlements that have grown up after the collapse of society.
St John Mandel has created a complex narrative, but never loses a thread, no matter how far apart from its origins it may be. Jeevan has previous connections with Arthur, Kirsten the actress who was there that night as a small girl is also a vital thread running through the story and its connections with Station Eleven, the work of Miranda, Arthur’s first wife. Station Eleven is a graphic novel, about a space station a few hundred people managed to escape on after an alien takeover of the earth,
Dr Eleven and his colleagues slipped Station Eleven through a wormhole and are hiding in the uncharted reaches of deep space. This is all a thousand years in the future. p.83
Do not be put off by this if you are not a lover of science fiction. Miranda’s work runs as a counterpoint to the dystopian world of most of the story, but is described as a work of art, and provides a note of hope.
I thoroughly loved this book, experiencing the joy one feels on finding a really good author one has not known before. Emily St John Mandel is Canadian and has written five other books that I know of. They are described as ‘mystery’ while this is under the ‘science fiction’ category. I am looking forward to reading her latest, The Glass Hotel, which contains, among other things, a Ponzi scheme, ghosts and moral compromise.