“Survival is inefficient.”
I’ve seen some bloggers writing lists of books that changed them, and wondered what that meant. Has a book ever changed me? I wasn’t sure. Now, it may be too soon to say, but I think this book might be the one. It’s changed me, or at least my outlook. This book made me appreciate the life I have, and wonder what things would be like if everything we take for granted was lost.
Told through varying perspectives, spanning a time frame of over 30 years, Station Eleven shows what the world is like before, during and after a fatal flu outbreak wipes out most of the population. It’s brutal, but it’s also beautiful.
The story opens in the last night of the ‘old world’; famous actor Arthur Leander suffers a heart attack on stage; eight-year old actress Kirsten watches on whilst a member of the audience, Jeevan Chaudhary, races to the stage in a futile attempt to perform CPR. The events seem dramatic enough, and yet they pale into insignificance as the night develops; a deadly flu grips the nation, and panic and chaos ensues.
“Jeevan was crushed with a sudden certainty that this was it, that this illness Hua was describing was going to be the divide between a before and after, a line drawn through his life.”
From there, Mandel goes on to explore the twenty years following the outbreak, seamlessly zooming in and out of narrative, jumping between a myriad of characters and timeframes. Each chapter moves rapidly between characters and times, but every word is perfectly placed; there is no filler here, and I didn’t lose interest for a second. The thread that binds the seemingly disconnected characters together as they each fight their own battles is for survival is Arthur, who never got to see the new world, but has still left his footprints on it.
It was such an unfamiliar concept to picture a new world where modern technology – things we take for granted like cars, planes, telephones and internet – were a thing of the past. The children born after the outbreak struggle to even comprehend that these things could exist, and there’s even an impromptu Museum Of Civilisation set up which house items such as iPhones, high heels and credit cards – things which seem essential, but soon become meaningless artifacts with no purpose but to remind mankind of the world they have lost. Pages and pages of the book are dedicated to marvelling at those wonders of the modern world – and airports and aeroplanes take a particular significance – and it really served to help me realise how lucky we are.
“We bemoaned the impersonality of the modern world, but that was a lie, it seemed to him; it had never been impersonal at all. There had always been a massive delicate infrastructure of people, all of them working unnoticed around us, and when people stop going to work, the entire operation grinds to a halt.”
One of my favourite things about the book was the Travelling Symphony – a group of travelling performers who Kirsten falls in with soon after the collapse of society. Despite the bleak nature of their circumstances, this band of passionate individuals believe that “survival is inefficient”; humans need more than just to live, they need something to live for. They travel around the small settlements, performing Shakespeare and music for anyone who wishes to watch. It’s just one of the many ways which Mandel manages to capture the strength and enduring nature of humankind.
Station Eleven is classed as science fiction, but it never once felt like that to me. For me, this beautiful novel is more about people; through the web of characters Mandel encapsulates what it to be human, and what it is to hope. Because even when all is lost, those who remain will find a way to persevere – and there will always be tomorrow.