Emily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven (2014)

Station Eleven

Another post-apocalyptic novel and one that so  many have reviewed already. Still, I have to write about Station Eleven because it’s such an impressive book and even though there are so many dystopian and post-apocalyptic books published every year, this one stands out. To a large extent because it’s one of a few – maybe even the only one – that doesn’t make you feel as if someone just bashed you over the head. It has so many moments of glorious beauty that you’ll finish it without feeling a major depression coming on.

The book opens with a theater play. It’s Arthur Leander’s last performance of King Lear. Although he dies during the play he has a pivotal role in the book. The night of the play, a winter night in Toronto, isn’t only Arthur’s last night, it marks the end of most of humanity. In a few days a pandemic will have wiped out 99% of the world’s population.

From that night the novel flash forwards to the future, fifteen years later. Kirsten is part of the Travelling Symphony, an orchestra and theater group who performs Shakespeare plays while travelling from one place to the next. The world has changed a great deal. Everywhere lie the remnants of the old world, in which there still was electricity, air planes, iPhones etc.

I mentioned that Arthur Leander has a pivotal role and that’s because Emily St. John Mandel decided to tell the story of all those who were close to him and present when he died, including the story of some other people linked to him. Kirsten, for example, played a child Cordelia in this modern interpretation of Shakespeare’s play.

Some of the people who were close to Arthur will make it, some won’t. There are some heartbreaking scenes when we read how some of them struggle in vain and die during the pandemic.

What makes the book stand out, apart from the ingenious structure, was how people looked back on what they lost. It makes you grateful for everything we have but at the same time, the book shows that there will always be great things. Because the society we live in now has so much to offer, so  much beauty – art, theater, even technology – that, although 99% of its population are wiped out, many live in a lawless state, and other’s form fanatic cults, there’s still enough that has survived and will go on making our world a special place.

I wonder if this book made it into other people’s dreams as well. While I was reading it, I dreamt every night of the landscapes in the book. That’s why I called it impressive. It’s not overburdened with descriptions but what little she uses is very powerful. If you wonder why it’s called Station Eleven – the title refers to a comic book one of the characters has been drawing almost all of her life.

I liked that the book made me look at what I have and wonder what I would like to keep. Even when it comes to objects. Only things that are useful or even things that are just beautiful?

I could say a lot more about this book but I feel it’s OK to only write a short review because there are so many around at the moment. The important thing is – pick it up. It’s really worth it. If you love post-apocalyptic stories, you’ll read it anyway. If you don’t, maybe it will show you that not every book about the end must be traumatic. Certainly not one that makes you grateful for everything we have and, ultimately, shows that it’s possible to find beauty, no matter what will happen to our world. Nothing illustrates the message of the book better than the reversal of Sartre’s famous quote L’enfer c’est les autres – Hell is other people. In the novel Kirsten thinks that he’s wrong. She has come to the conclusion that hell is the absence of people you feel close to.

I haven’t read The Road yet but I could imagine the two complement each other; one being very gloomy, the other one very luminous.

Marcus Sedgwick: Floodland (2000)

Floodland

Marcus Sedgwick has been on my radar for a while. I’ve seen more than one enthusiastic review of his books. He’s regularly nominated for awards and has won a few, notably the Branford Boase Award for first children’s book for Floodland. When you come to a writer who is as prolific as Marcus Sedgwick it’s hard to know where to start. Last year he even published a book for adults A Love Like Blood, that’s high on my TBR piles. I first wanted to read Midwinterblood but then decided to start with his first novel Floodland.

Floodland is set in the UK in the future. Most of the country is flooded, some of the higher regions building small islands. Food is scarce and people try to flee from the smaller islands to a larger part of the mainland. Zoe is left behind on the island of Norwich when her parents leave. During a moment of total chaos they boarded without making sure that she was really following them. Zoe’s been fighting for herself ever since. She’s a loner and most people leave her alone that’s why, when she discovers a boat, she’s able to hide it, and make it seaworthy again. One day she leaves the island, looking for the mainland. Instead of finding the mainland she’s stranded on an even smaller island than Norwich. Dooby, who is only a few years older than Zoe, is the leader of the people on that island. Food is even scarcer and so is shelter. Most people live in an old cathedral. Dooby confiscates her boat and Zoe’s forced to stay on this island on which people have turned into barbaric mobs, periodically overrun by other mobs who they torture and kill, if given a chance. Her only aim is to find her boat, flee and find the mainland and her parents.

I thought that the idea of Norwich being an island was pretty uncanny. I liked how this book was structured and divided into three parts “before”, “then” and “after”. Each part is subdivided into short chapters. At the beginning of every part and every chapter we find haunting wood carvings by Marcus Sedgwick.

Floodland is a short novel and so it may not be surprising that the writing is taut. There’s no superfluous word here. It all moves along at a steady pace and is very suspenseful.The middle part, which is the longest, was reminiscent of Lord of the Flies. It was also the part which carried the strongest message. There’s only one elderly person on that island and he makes Zoe understand how important it is to tell stories if humans want to keep their humanity.

The end felt a bit rushed but I still thought it was well done. Overall I enjoyed this adventurous story a great deal. Zoe’s a wonderful heroine and the world Marcus Sedgwick created felt realistic. There’s not too much backstory but we still understand it’s all a result of global warming. For children this may be a very emotional book because Zoe wonders until the end why her parents didn’t come back to find her. There’s one thing I didn’t like and that’s the idea that people turn into animals when they lose their humanity. I’m not keen on the dichotomy animal/human. The people in this book lose their compassion and their altruism because they are in a very precarious situation. They are cruel and depraved. That doesn’t make them animals. Animals don’t know cruelty.

If you’d like to find out more about Marcus Sedgwick here’s his website Marcus Sedgwick. It’s one of the most appealing writer’s websites I’ve come across. He also writes a blog where I found this quote that sums up his writing

I’m not a writer who tells you something five times. I usually say it just once, and if I say it any more in a first draft, my editor makes me take it out in a rewrite anyway. That’s one of the reasons that my books are sometimes shorter than other people’s. And that’s one of the reasons why I wish some people would read more slowly. Books are patient; you can afford to take your time when you’re reading for pleasure.