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.

Book review: Us by David Nicholls

I’ve been looking forward to reading this; I’ve been a huge fan of David Nicholls’s work since someone lent me a copy of One Day. Nicholls seems to have carved himself a niche that, on the surface, seems a little hard to define. The best I can come up with is that he writes about ordinary people who suddenly find their lives turned inside out by an extraordinary situation. Us is no exception. We are introduced to Douglas, a biochemist married to Connie, a bohemian free-spirit whom he suspects he doesn’t deserve (he is punching slightly above his weight), and his son Albie whom he has almost no connection with. After twenty-five years of marriage, Connie announces that when Albie leaves home for university, then she’ll be leaving Douglas too.

1433134101_thumb.jpegDouglas, being a scientist, deduces that the best way to save his marriage, and salvage any kind of relationship with his son, is to use a trip across Europe as a way to heal old wounds and forge new bonds. And so the reader accompanies the three of them across the continent, along with the uneasy feeling that none of this is going end well.

As always, it is an extremely well-written book. Nicholls crafts his prose concisely and with a certain terseness that flows easily from page to page. His characters are equally well-crafted, but having read a few of his books I’m starting to get the feeling that I’ve met them before. They’re all slightly detached and very sardonic. I do like this because it gives his dialogue a flat, dry wit, but I am starting to think that I’m reading about the same people in different situations.

The road-trip itself is funny and sad and extremely vivid. You do get a sense that you’re right there with them experiencing Douglas’s frustration; he seems to live behind a sheet of glass with his wife and son on the other side. At times though, I thought the exposition into art galleries and landmarks got a little too dense, a bit like reading a travel brochure, and I found that it detracted from the main story. As we headed towards the end, I think I became a little impatient with all the tourist paths; I really wanted to know things turned out. I know how important it is not to rush the ending of a good novel, but by the same token, you can stretch things out a little too far.

But overall, I really enjoyed Us, and would recommend it as a cracking good read, though I didn’t like it as much as One Day or Starter for Ten.

I’m going to give it a very respectable seven out of ten.

Book review: An Iliad – A Story of War by Alessandro Baricco

I seem to be reading a lot of this fella’s stuff at the moment. His writing really appeals to me. It’s thought-provoking and beautifully crafted without going overboard on metaphors.
I had high hopes for An Iliad because I’m a bit of a greek mythology buff which is why I dived straight in right after reading Silk.
And that might not have been the best idea.


An Illiad is the story of the Trojan War told from a range of perspectives:
heroes (alive, dead or about to be killed); kings, prophets; slaves … at one point, even the river outside Troy has its say.  It’s more approachable (and shorter) than Homer’s original work, but I think the style of it wasn’t particularly to my liking. I don’t mind working a bit harder for a good read, but I’m a bit of a stickler for consistency, and the prose tended to meander between the comic-book and the poetic. The battle scenes were bloody and magnificent, but weren’t overcooked. Baricco deliberately kept the gods out of it which allows the reader to focus on the men: their fear, their loneliness; their petty jealousies; but mainly their egos. Let’s face it, the whole ten years was about one man’s ego so it’s no surprise there was plenty of it to go around.
I did enjoy the book as a whole, I think. It was originally written in Italian, so I wonder if perhaps some of the original feel of the book was lost in translation. I should probably learn Italian and find out.
Although I didn’t like it as much as Silk, I haven’t lost faith in Mr Barricco. I’m going to read Without Blood next, and in the meantime give An Iliad six out of ten.

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