Book review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

I woke up this morning in something of a panic.
Say, a sizeable majority of the human race (say, 96%) was wiped out by an airborne flu virus. Say that in the weeks that followed, civilisation collapsed: no industry, no infrastructure, no technology, no governments. The end of pretty much everything.

Say, that in the months that followed, the very few that are left, are forced to leave their homes to escape the lawlessness, the disease caused by bodies piling up in homes and in the streets.

Say, I had to leave to find food, to find water, to survive . . . 

I lay there, wondering what I’d do with the cats.

I couldn’t take them with me. I could just leave them; let them fend for themselves. Cats are good at that. Well, one is; the other one is a little bit dim.
What would I need on trek that would cover hundreds of miles? No need for a phone, or a computer, or money for that matter. I’d need clothes, weapons, tinned food, paper and pens to write with . . . 

The genius of Emily St. John Mandel’s apocalyptic epic Station Eleven is that she’s skipped the global view almost entirely. There’s no omnipotent eye watching governments collapse, infrastructure failing, people dying by the millions. Station Eleven focusses on a group of travelling actors and musicians who are trying to keep culture alive, two decades after the pandemic that wiped out the population. We’re led through the world as it is now, and, through the memories of the characters, what it was in the weeks before the virus struck.

Ordinary lives before, and the ordinary lives after. It’s extraordinarily powerful writing: deep, literary, poetic, and very much character-driven. If your expecting an all-out Mad Max-like race for survival across the United States, then this isn’t it. What you get is a thoughtful slow-burner that draws you into this collapse into the dark ages through the eyes of the people living it. When a book moves you to think what you’d do when the end of the world finally arrives, then you’ve found something very special.

Excellent. Nine out of ten, and the cats are on their own.

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