STATION ELEVEN by Emily St.John Mandel (Picador Books, 2014)
Not for the first, or last, time I find myself at odds with the consensus. Most reviewers on Good Reads see fit to give it a five star rating to this novel and it has garnered widespread critical praise.
The blurb on the back cover is headed by a quote from George R.R. Martin who says it is “a book I will long remember”.
For my part, it’s a book I will easily forget despite the promising premise of a civilization all but wiped out by a deadly strain of Georgian flu.
Only a few are immune from this killer virus and although these have to scavenge for food and shelter, they seek also to preserve the human spirit. This they attempt to achieve through a mix of high literature and popular culture. A group of ‘traveling symphony’ of thespians perform Shakespeare on the basis that “Survival is Insufficient”, a line lifted from a Star Trek episode. This, I take as an endorsement of the notion that man cannot live on bread alone.
The meandering non linear narrative leaves behind some massive plot holes as it jumps back and forward in time. In part it relates the life of a famous actor up to his death while playing King Lear. He has a heart attack on stage on the eve of the pandemic . The other half comes 20 years after with a new generation trying to preserve art for art’s sake for what is left of the masses.
To me these two strands never quite connect and the tragic elements I expected from such a doomsday scenario are curiously muted. This young Canadian author writes some elegant prose but she seems undecided whether this should be a Sci-Fi fantasy or hard-edged drama. In the end it is neither.