This year, I’m counting down the 12 books I most enjoyed during 2015. As always, they’re books I read this year but they were not necessarily published this year. But books never go out of fashion so let’s not worry about that.
You’re bound to have heard of Station Eleven. Emily St. John Mandel’s post-apocalyptic tale of survival and Shakespeare is probably the best selling book in my top 12. To be fair, I bought a good few copies myself, keen as I was to share the joy, but there’s no doubt that this was a popular choice for readers in 2015.
In Toronto, Arthur Leander, at the pinnacle of his acting career, is playing Lear on stage when he collapses with a heart attack. Jeevan, an aspiring paramedic, is in the audience and tries but fails to save Leander’s life. These events appear significant but they’re nothing compared to what’s to come: on leaving the theatre, Jeevan receives a phone call from his friend, an ER doctor, who warns that Georgia Flu has arrived in Canada. In the following weeks, 99% of the world’s population is wiped out.
This premise might seem like a well worn trail; we’ve seen the world wiped out by pandemics, zombies and natural disasters countless times in books, on TV and in films and we know how it plays out. But Station Eleven brings something new to the genre. The plot is almost too complex to summarise here, with multiple strands skilfully woven together by Mandel. It shifts back and forward between the days before Georgia Flu and Year Twenty, when survivors are attempting to rebuild civilisation and are visited by a peripatetic company of actors and musicians, The Traveling Symphony, who perform Shakespeare plays to the communities they come across on the road. Shakespeare, they find, is the playwright of choice in Year Twenty, tapping in to something essential.
Amongst this company is Kirsten. A former child actor, eight years old at the time the flu spread and present at Leander’s death, Kirsten can barely remember life before the pandemic. But she carries with her two comic books given to her by Leander and drawn by his first wife, Miranda, that are almost talismans, proof that a civilisation capable of making and enjoying art once existed. Likewise, in an abandoned airport, Leander’s estranged friend Clark, curates his own Museum of Civilisation, placing defunct credit cards and mobile phones on display as symbols of past human endeavour, now lost to the world.
What I particularly liked about Station Eleven – and what has lingered in my mind – is Mandel’s delicate and beautiful imagery. From the opening scene, fake snow falling gently and silently on to the theatre stage as Jeevan attempts to resuscitate Leander; to the distant twinkling lights of container ships moored off Malaysia, watched by Miranda as she lives out her final days alone in the world; and the forest of grounded and rusting jumbo jets at the airport that is The Traveling Symphony’s final destination. It really is unlike most other post-apocalyptic fiction I’ve read.