Sunday, 8 March 2015

Station Eleven - Emily St. John Mandel

Now how did this one nearly slip under the radar?  I never saw a review, none of my booky friends seem to have read or mentioned this one either, and it's quite new - only published in paperback this year in the UK .  I saw the cover and it drew me in - thank goodness!
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If I say the word dystopian, please don't stop reading.  I do know that many readers don't like books about 'after the end of the world as we know it', but this book may well be my book of the year and was so enjoyable I read it in two chunks and, if I'd opened it earlier, it would have been read all at once.  So I recommend it wholeheartedly to you.

When Arthur Leander dies on stage during a production of King Lear in Toronto, Canada,  he is the first of many deaths that night - in Canada, in America, round the world.  But his death is not the catalyst.  His death is from a heart attack.  As a severe form of flu swoops on millions of others, it is clear that the world will never be the same.   From Arthur, film star and stage actor;  to the would-be paramedic who leaps on stage and attempts CPR;  to a small child who was part of the stage production that night, several lives and several objects are intertwined.  The small child goes on to become part of Travelling Symphony - as the name suggests, a group of travelling musicians who also perform Shakespeare plays;  hauling their entire world with them in old pickup trucks which are now horsedrawn.  They travel, not from town to town, but from settlement to settlement, for towns and cities are abandoned, and those that did escape the pandemic form little groups in useful but out of the way places like motels and petrol stations on back roads.  Some settlements are welcoming, some not.  Some are peopled by those you'd want to get away from yourself.  Some you'd want to stop at.  But the Travelling Symphony have another reason to keep going. Two of their members stopped off at a settlement a while ago - a very pregnant woman and her partner, and the Symphony is on the way back to the settlement to pick them up with their new baby and move on down the road.

Set around Lakes Ontario and Erie, their world seems so big but in fact is very small indeed considering that they are on foot or in a horsedrawn vehicle travelling at walking pace.  Food in supermarkets,  Mom and Pop stores, petrol stations having long gone either by looting or decay in the twenty years since Arthur's death, they are reliant on hunted food (plenty of deer), bartered food (money is no use) and on meals offered as they reach settlements.  Kirsten, the little girl from King Lear all that time ago in Toronto is a hunter, and with August, another Symphony member, a scavanger - the only two in the group willing to enter houses and find things that might be useful, or that they might like to keep.  So then.  This is life twenty years after the end.  Twenty years of a new kind of life alternately described with Arthur's life back when.  What a read!