Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
As I write this blog post, Sierra Leone has just been placed on lockdown for three days in a bid to stop the spread of the Ebola virus, and despite the fact that the number of Ebola cases here in the UK currently stands at just two (both non-fatal), the level of anxiety and tabloid-fuelled panic remains high. It seems that the fear of any kind of pandemic is something we can't quite shake off - and I personally am both fascinated and terrified by them.
Emily St John Mandel's Station Eleven begins with a renowned actor, Arthur Leander, dying from a heart attack while playing King Lear at a Toronto theatre. Within hours of his death, it transpires that hospitals worldwide are besieged with cases of the deadly Georgia Flu, and once the pandemic takes hold, it's clear that nothing will ever be the same again. Twenty years later, a mismatched group of travelling players travels North America performing Shakespeare to the few survivors - including a community that has sprung from the passengers and airline staff stranded at a quarantined airport on the day civilisation effectively came to end.
Station Eleven isn't a dystopian adventure story: although it's very much about survival, the daily mechanics of this are secondary to the much more interesting psychological elements of living after, and through, what is essentially a form of apocalypse. Kirsten, a former child actor who was on stage with Arthur Leander the day he died and now wandering with the Travelling Symphony, can't bear to part with a glass paperweight and a mysterious science fiction comic that gives Station Eleven its title and has odd, distorted parallels with the post-pandemic world. Clark, in his airport home, collects once commonplace but now entirely useless items for a Museum of Civilisation - credit cards, mobile phones, stiletto shoes. Others choose to follow a charismatic prophet who seems to provide them with a pseudo-Christian cult rationale that helps them to make a twisted sense of the horrors of the pandemic and its aftermath.
Station Eleven is also set apart from most dystopian novels by focusing equally on the lives of selected characters before the flu pandemic, some of whom will survive it, and some who won't - but all of whom are, like Kirsten and Clark, linked to the late Arthur Leander. It explores the ways that one person's life can, even after the civilisation of which they were part has effectively been wiped out, influence the lives and beliefs of many, many others - positively and negatively. All the characters are portrayed with remarkable sensitivity and largely without judgement, and this is a gripping novel despite its unhurried pace.
Moving, thoughtful, sad and often quietly terrifying, Station Eleven is also oddly life-affirming in a low-key, non-showy sort of way. There is a sense of weariness about it, a sense of life slipping away, but also a hint of a world gradually starting to be reborn. As Miranda, creator of the Station Eleven comics, lives her last hours one night on a Malaysian beach, the lights of huge, stationary ships full of the dying are symbolic of the world ending - yet decades later, distant lights on the horizon are a sign of some form, at least, of recovery.