Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel - A phenomenal post-apocalyptic novel like none other.
This book came highly recommended bundled with the likes of California by Edan Lepucki among others. A genre of post-apocalyptic fiction that is unabashedly realistic and still manages to be poignant, lyrical and stunningly original.
I concur. Reading the book was like floating along a gentle river; a meandering journey that you know not the destination of and still manages to be pleasant. Retaining that sense of wonder, déjà vu and puzzlement. All of which characterizes quintessential human life. It is an exploration of how fragile, ephemeral and yet connected are human lives. In more ways than one, it’s a brilliant parable detailing the life and times of people in the backdrop of a deadly apocalyptic virus breakout in the world. Giving us insights unto the fleeting sense of fame and the endurance of art. Albeit graphic art – a comic book that becomes a symbol of hope for a distraught human company in such times fraught with unexpected dangers.
Pop culture references surfeit the book’s various chapters – be it The Passage or the quote from Star Trek, Emily has managed to tweak these into her narrative masterfully integrating it without much of a mess. It’s effective. And as a device, a post-apocalyptic world is a brilliant backdrop for exploring the inter-connected lives of all the characters in this book. It was like watching a master weaver at work. The flourish and make-believe of genius is absent. And yet never does the lilting prose feel plodding. The plot is meandering yes. And I curse myself for having stopped the book in the middle – to be swayed by other fast-moving narratives. But coming back to read Station Eleven was like coming back to meet an old friend. A real friend – a silent effortless camaraderie that lets you have that companionable silence on the porch at the fag end of a day. Picking up conversations where we last left off years back.
So the book is full of symbols. That resurface in subtle and cunning ways – like the title, Station Eleven is actually a graphic novel about a genius scientist stuck in space in a different planet ( that is called Station Eleven by the way) philosophizing about life and the struggles that define it. Much like the restless mindset of the author, Miranda– first wife to Arthur, a very famous actor. But unlike Arthur who is hungry for more, Miranda – keeps her art to herself. Sometimes there is no greater joy than that of simply creating. And funnily after the Georgia Flu wipes out 99.9% of world population, her work survives and becomes a symbol of hope for a group of survivors.
Flitting across timelines, Emily slowly introduces all the characters in this story. Pre-apocalypse, the narrative balances around Actor Arthur and his wives – chiefly Miranda, his best friend Clark and a paparrazi-turned-medico Jeevan. The post-apocalypse is mainly about Kirsten, a girl whom we first see in the very first act of the book – on stage when Arthur dies of a heart-attack while enacting King Lear of Shakespeare – who grows up in the post-apocalyptic world to be a part of the “Travelling Symphony group” that specializes in doing Shakespearean productions. It’s a full circle – from Shakespeare’s King Lear in a pre-pandemic world to performing Shakespeare in a bleak sparse world – bringing back the focus on art, music and theatre. And thus, the words of Star Trek immortalized as tattoos on the hands of survivors, “Survival is Insufficient.”
It’s a beautiful mix of contradictions. Who would want to listen to a travelling group of musicians in a world fraught with dangers after the flu-breakout killed pretty much everyone around? This strangeness simply becomes norm the way Emily presents her characters and novels – and as I said before, the best part of the book was watching the individual threads of sparse colors be woven together to form a masterful brilliant tapestry of colors and designs hitherto unimagined. Emily uses different devices like radio clippings, newspaper interviews to round off the POVs and bring in depth and perspective to the narrative. Seemingly at random but as the plot unfolds it all makes sense.
It is in parts dark and bittersweet but Station Eleven is ultimately a richly satisfying novel that stands towering above the glut of post-apocalyptic fiction today purely because of its simplicity. An ethereal untouchable quality to the writing that transcends the themes of just survival and brings on more. Radiant, original and bewitchingly beautiful, this is by far one of the phenomenal books of 2014.