Summer Book Group Reads, Part 1: ‘Station Eleven’ by Emily St. John Mandel
My new book group has not had the smoothest of starts. It would be easier to get a dozen cats into baskets and en route to the vet’s than it’s been persuading a handful of women into a designated room at the same time on the same day, even with the offer of wine and crisps. I came close to jacking it all in, but decided to call ‘Time Out’ over the summer and try again once everyone had returned from their holidays. If our September meeting was anything to go by, I’m glad I stuck with it.
Due to our summer break we had two books to discuss at last week’s meeting. I read Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven months ago, and while I remember loving it, I was in desperate need of a recap if I was going to be able to contribute anything other than the vaguest gushing comments. A couple of long soaks in the bath later (my reading location of choice), it all started to come back.
When famous actor Arthur Leander dies on stage in mid performance of King Lear, no-one suspects that this news will shortly be eclipsed by the rapid sweep of a deadly virus that reaps devastation across the globe. Fast forward in time, and civilization as we know it has long gone. Mandel evokes a world in which the technologies we prize are nothing more than useless relics without the electricity to power them. The territories mankind had rendered smooth and fenced in have been breached by creeping plant-life, slowly rupturing tarmac and concrete in its steady reclamation of the land.
Against this post-apocalyptic backdrop, we meet up with various characters who had some connection to Arthur Leander whose experiences shed light on this new world. Kirsten was a child actor in the fateful performance of King Lear, and is now part of a group called the Travelling Symphony, who move from settlement to settlement performing Shakespeare. The sparse population they encounter is ungoverned and each town has its own rules. It’s no surprise when they visit a place where a dangerous charismatic figure called the Prophet has taken control, and their visit puts their safety into jeopardy.
Meanwhile those stranded at the airport when the outbreak began have remained and created a settlement of sorts. One character, Clark, starts collecting and curating objects from the past into a museum of what was lost. One of the items saved is a comic book called Station Eleven, that happens to be the artistic labour of love of Arthur’s first wife, Miranda. The work was never intended for publication but it ends up as Kirsten’s most prized possession, and one of the few salvaged artifacts from civilization as it once was.
Station Eleven is a hard book to categorise. It’s certainly post-apocalyptic, and yet, it’s a surprisingly upbeat and meditative novel. When our citadels all lie in ruins, Mandel reminds us that the qualities that make us human endure. Who knows, we may end up making the same mistakes all over again, but while there’s Art, there’s hope.