Last month the stars aligned and both my book groups read the same book. Well. That’s not quite true. I started reading Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven for one group and, only a chapter in, was so keen to recommend it to the other that I gave my pitch in absentia at a meeting I was unable to attend. Like the flu pandemic at the heart of Mandel’s novel, my love for her writing is spreading uncontrollably, touching all I meet. What started with the suggestion of one person has grown and multiplied, the word is out there, who it will touch next I do not know.
So what is it about Station Eleven that has got under my skin and in to my blood in such a virulent way? It is certainly not, from the blurb on the back, the kind of book that I would have chosen on my own. Whilst it is helpful for my writing, my over-active imagination is not always benevolent. I cannot dive on wrecks for fear of skeletons, I cannot loiter in the woods lest a wolf is lurking, I cannot sleep alone without the blankets pulled over my head as a shield against the monsters, the censor’s warning of ‘mild peril’ was designed for me. This is not a person who is comfortable with notions of apocalypse. But Mandel’s book is so much more than the sensationalist or macabre dystopian futures I seek to avoid. Her prose reads like poetry, her themes are strong but not over-worked, characters cross and re-cross each other’s paths without contrivance. The beginning, middle and end are equally strong and equally unique, there is resolution and yet an inkling of journeys to come. Above all there is humanity, moments of such crippling pathos that I was reduced to tears but could not stop reading; brought up short as though staring through a strip-lit mirror in to our collective soul.
Mandel raises some pretty big questions but the ones that stick with you aren’t necessarily those that you would expect. I won’t pretend that I didn’t lie awake on occasion, running over in my head what I would pack, where I would go, what I would be prepared to do, were the day to come. But these thoughts were a light dew on the outer petals of my consciousness, an intellectual exercise one step removed from counting sheep. No, what have worked their way deeper are the issues too subtle, too unphotogenic for inclusion in disaster movies. What happens when it becomes clear that the army is not coming, that there are no heroes to save the day, when the canned food is eaten and the residual electricity, the water and the petrol runs out? How would you cope with a world of obstacles, where the rattle of a pull-along suitcase attracts the wrong attention, if you are in a wheel-chair? Years later, do you commemorate the old world, do you take risks to preserve its artifacts, work to recapture what has been lost, or do you tell your children that things have always been this way?
Without giving anything away for those who may wish to read Station Eleven for themselves, the book did leave me with a sense of optimism. Not a sepia drenched Hollywood ride in to the sunset but a slow burning conviction that, ultimately, humankind is as tough as the proverbial cockroach. We may imagine that we could not live without the trappings of our current lives, the instant communication, instant gratification of our screen obsessed society but, were it all to be wiped away, beauty, art, friendship, community would still remain. They were there before and they will be there again. All we need is a little faith in ourselves. I would thoroughly recommend that you pick up a copy, have a read, and pass the contagion on.