Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 26 Feb 2024

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Growing up in the second half of the 20th century in a pretty safe and secure, rich Western European environment made me way too indifferent to the voices of scientists and various experts who would periodically surface on the radio or t.v. to warn us that some catastrophe was bound to strike our fragile civilisation – that it wasn’t a case of if but of when. And, they told us, the reckoning might be coming in any one of many horrible forms – floods, meteor strike, super-massive earthquakes and volcanos, nuclear war, eco-destruction, global pandemic: take your pick.

Knowing logically that the warning voices were inevitably right and that we were bound to be on the wrong end of something sooner or later, didn’t really make me listen harder or worry unduly. Now as I sit here in 2024, we all know just how right those experts were as we look back to 2020 and note ruefully that the first taxi off the disaster rank for us was the global pandemic – take a bow Covid 19.

But back in 2014, Emily St. John Mandel had beaten us all to the punch. Her novel, Station Eleven, imagines a world devastated, all civilisation destroyed, by the onset of a global pandemic she calls Georgia Flu. Fast acting and deadly, the flu kills off over 90% of the Earth’s population in a matter of days and weeks – leaving the ‘lucky’ few to cobble together a post-apocalyptic world stripped of all technology.

The book starts just a day or two before the pandemic sweeps across the world. A famous actor, Arthur Leander is playing King Lear on stage when he suddenly has a heart attack. A member of the audience, Jeevan Chaudhray, who has an ambition to become a paramedic, leaps on stage to try and save him. He fails. As the actor dies, an eight-year-old girl, Kirsten Raymonde, who is a member of the cast, sits and watches the tragedy unfold. In an attempt to comfort her, she is given a comic to read (this comic is the ‘Station Eleven’ of the title).

This event becomes the origin story that will provide much of the subsequent structure of the book which is told both forward and backwards. Kirsten goes on to become a key character in a travelling group of actors and musicians known as ‘The Travelling Symphony’ who roam across the post pandemic world putting on Shakespeare plays for a little food and money. The story of how Kirsten and The Symphony survive the dangers of a world full of deadly (but rather inept) Prophets who have extreme religious evangelical tendencies, occupies much of the book and provides plenty of gripping tension.

We also discover what happens to Jeevan who also makes it past the pandemic and discover that his modest paramedic training had made him an indispensable doctor in this new world.

We also have to go backwards in time to learn how Arthur Leander’s previous life – his friendships, marriages and his child - all end up playing significant roles in the world. Arthur’s best friend, Clark, becomes the founder of the Museum of Civilisation which is based at the airport in which they were sealed when the flu first hit and it becomes something of a beacon of hope for a future that has to be remade.

I’ve entirely skated over the plot which is far richer, denser and more cunningly constructed than I can give you in so few words – but that’s no bad thing if you plan to read the book because you’ll thoroughly enjoy the skill that’s been used to hold together a complex narrative.

I think this book rather slipped into cult territory when it was released because we hadn’t lived through our own pandemic at that point. No doubt there will be an identifiable genre of ‘pandemic literature’ coming along in due course but they will have to be damn good to top this one.

You’ll have no problems finding paperback editions of the book - although the hardback is a little more expensive.


Terry Potter

February 2024