Few chapters into Station Eleven, I was worried whether I picked up the right book at the wrong time. Fast-paced from the get-go, with characters that I invested in, the anxiety induced by the incidents at the beginning was palpable. The author, Emily St. John Mandel, published this work of fiction in the year 2014. I had to check it twice to make sure that it was not 2020, and that it was indeed fictional.
The story unfolds in a post-apocalyptic world, and the apocalypse (Surprise! Surprise!) is a SARS-like flu that is extremely infectious. Called the Georgia Flu, it supposedly originates from the country of Georgia. The book starts with the sudden death of a popular actor, fifty-one-year-old Arthur Leander. The actor suffers a cardiac arrest while on stage, delivering his lines as King Lear. Meanwhile, the city of Toronto is already in the vice-like grip of the flu.
We then journey into the post-pandemic world along with the survivors. The author makes the reader piece together the events from the fragments of the survivors’ recollections, with some amusing coincidences and clues.
The post-apocalyptic world doesn’t look good with a near end of human civilization as we know it – no electricity, no internet, no governance, and no law and order. The only semblance of culture is the travelling theatre company called The Travelling Symphony. Despite the tatters that they dress in, they manage to set up a good show wherever they see a sizable appreciative crowd.
With a motley collection of interesting characters, the author pulls the reader through the twists and turns in the lives of the survivors. There is a reasonably riveting antagonist called The Prophet who seems to believe that he was saved from the flu, for a purpose.
Some of the incidents were too close for comfort. For instance, the part at the beginning, where one of the characters, Jeevan Choudhary, fills up seven shopping carts worth of essentials from the supermarket, as the news about fast-filling ERs play on the TV screen behind him. Shudders!
Half-way through the book, I realised that this was a story that I needed to read now if only to imagine what could have gone wrong, had we, as a civilisation, chosen a wrong turn at the crossroads. Also, what might have happened if the fatality rate had been high.
The fear was always at the back of my mind. Yet, on every page, I reassured myself. Thank God! This is not how it is playing out in the real world! I ended up feeling grateful for a lot of things – our collective intelligence, our willingness to collaborate, and our ability to empathize with and help one another.
Some of the lines in the book seeped into the crevices of my brain, crevices that had appeared only in the last five months.
Sample this – “They were afraid of everyone who wasn’t them.” Or. “Days slipped past, and the news went on and on until it began to seem abstract, a horror movie that wouldn’t end.” I am reminded of this line every time I switch on the news now.
Another one that stands out is “Civilization in Year Twenty was an archipelago of small towns. These towns had fought off ferals, buried their neighbours, lived and died and suffered together in the blood-drenched years just after the collapse, survived against unspeakable odds and then only by holding together into the calm, and these places didn’t go out of their way to welcome outsiders.”
Year Twenty refers to the twentieth year after the flu struck. This brings me to some of the aspects of the book that grated against my reading conscience. The narration of the book goes back and forth in time. The device used by the author to keep the year of the flu as the reference point makes the reader count backwards or forward from this reference point. It was a lot of hard work to keep track of while reading. There were certain instances when I felt that I should have a notepad beside me to note the years and the events.
At least two of the characters, in my opinion, deserved better closures. One was Jeevan Choudhary, and the other was the antagonist – The Prophet. With the characters going through such a tumultuous journey, I hoped that something astounding awaited them at their destination. However, the ending was a tad underwhelming.
All said and done, this book seems like an excellent companion to, err, the present situation. I am glad that it won’t serve as a guide. Read this book to get sucked into a rich story, and a nerve-wracking journey through a dystopian post-pandemic world.
Book Name: Station Eleven
Author: Emily St. John Mandel
Book Type: Kindle eBook