Emily St. John Mandel (www.emilymandel.com)
Within days of the first case, the Georgia Flu sweeps across the surface of the globe, infecting billions and killing them within hours. For those that are left, the world is a strange new place, and as resources dwindle or go stale, the world becomes a much larger place where new communities spring up in the unlikeliest of places: airports, shopping malls and roadside services. Twenty years after the disaster, the Travelling Symphony follow a long-established route, bringing music and Shakespeare to the communities that they encounter, in an attempt to keep some of what was good about the pre-Flu world alive. When the Symphony pass through St Deborah by the Water and run afoul of the mysterious "prophet", they find themselves travelling beyond the boundaries of their safe zone.
As Emily St. John Mandel’s latest novel, Station Eleven opens, it is difficult not to make comparisons with countless end-of-the-world novels that have come before it – Stephen King’s The Stand or Terry Nation’s Survivors being two of the most obvious in terms of what causes the downfall of humanity. But it doesn’t take long for Mandel to make her mark and present a completely fresh and original take on the post-apocalyptic novel. While the Travelling Symphony’s flight from St Deborah by the Water is the focus of much of the novel, it is far from the only story we’ll hear on our journey.
Mandel’s novel opens on the eve of the apocalypse and we learn within the first handful of pages that the Georgia Flu – so-called because of its origin (the eastern European country, rather than the American state) – has already crossed the oceans and people are already dying in Toronto’s hospitals, and doubtless many other hospitals across the North American continent, and the world. From here, the story jumps between a number of different time periods, as we learn about the central characters in this beautifully-written and immediately-engaging story; while the bulk of the tale takes place twenty years after the Flu – Year Twenty in the new way of counting such things – we are also given glimpses of these peoples’ lives in the immediate aftermath of the crisis, and also years before it happened.
The focus of Station Eleven is on the people, and how they cope with the new state of the world. In some ways, by advancing the timeline twenty years into the future, Mandel has negated the need to talk about the inevitable violence and power grabs that are often the focus of these types of post-apocalyptic stories. Here, the fuel has long since gone stale, so people have reverted to four-legged transportation options, and ammunition has long since run out. The time period also gives the author the chance to examine how the new world looks to different generations. Within the Travelling Symphony alone, there are those (the nameless conductor, for example) who are old enough to remember the time before, and those who were born into the new world and know nothing else. Then there is the generation in the middle, people like August and Kristen, who was nine years old when the Georgia Flu struck, and who remembers very little of the time before, and absolutely nothing of that first year of this brave new world.
The book takes its title from a fictional comic book that is one of the few treasured possessions that Kristen carries with her. Written and self-published by an unnamed author, the comic is one of the few constants throughout the story: we, the reader, learn of its genesis and meet its creator and watch how it affects the development of two of the novel’s central characters (it’s difficult to say more without introducing spoilers). The other constant is a beautiful paperweight whose history we also learn as the story progresses. At the centre of the story, the lynchpin around whom everything revolves, stands the actor Arthur Leander, a man who dies on the very first page of the book. Each of the central characters is in some way related (though not necessarily in the familial sense) to Leander and his influence is still very evident twenty years after his death.
Without doubt one of the most original takes on the post-apocalyptic world that I have come across in some time, Station Eleven is, quite simply, a masterpiece. Mandel has created a world like none we’ve ever seen and populated with characters who, for the duration of the story and beyond, will become the most important people in your life. With references to everything from Shakespeare to Justin Cronin’s The Passage, Mandel examines the ways in which we make our mark on the world and on the people around us, both in the macrocosm (how the shredded remains of humanity continue to survive and thrive in this new world) and the microcosm (the effect that Arthur Leander, however briefly he may have touched their lives, has left on the central characters of the novel). Mandel has left the perfect set-up for a sequel (or several), and it will be interesting to see if she returns to the post-apocalyptic world of Year Twenty, or if our imaginations will be left to their own devices. Either way, Station Eleven is not to be missed, one of the finest novels of recent years and one that is destined to stand (pun most definitely intended) proudly alongside the giants of the genre.