How to Make an American Quilt – Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven proof.inddTake one large nation. Kill 99% of the population. Leave for twenty years. See what happens.

That’s essentially the premise of Station Eleven. As the fear factor surrounding the Ebola outbreak in Africa increases this may be the perfect time to read this book. Or perhaps the absolute worst time. Either way, the possibility of a global pandemic has never seemed more terrifying than it does now that I’ve finished this understated and emotive novel.

Emily St. John Mandel clearly subscribes to the ‘less is more’ approach to her storytelling. It’s hard to imagine a gentler, less sensational apocalypse. This is just about the quietest way possible to deal with the end of the world and it makes it terrifying, real and deeply moving.

Humanity is destroyed by Georgia Flu, a highly virulent strain that rushes through the world’s population killing all but 1% of it. We follow several survivors in a patchwork of stories that flit through time and location. Many of the narratives are linked. Some directly, some more oblique but they all offer up more information about the downfall of civilisation and humanity’s stuttering attempts to rise from the ashes. The whole time, as we read there is a nagging question – what is the significance of the graphic novel Station Eleven?

The book reminded me of Stephen Amsterdam’s Things we Didn’t See Coming, another quiet apocalypse tale. These books deal with the human side of things; the difficulty of living a normal life when no such thing exists. Realistic travails of survival, rather than overblown zombie attacks or crushing overlords setting up implausible living conditions. There were passages in this book, that made me weep. This is partly due to be being a parent. Nobody with children likes to imagine the destruction of humanity (well maybe just at bedtime), but the simplicity in which St John Mandel, describes the gradual decline and isolation is gut-wrenching.

If I have a small gripe about the novel, it’s I’m not sure that the backward state of the new America is realistic. But then what do I know? I just feel that whilst everybody may have been dead, the survivors would have lots of practical information accessible; how to generate electricity for example. If Faraday could do it in the early 1800s, I think some of the more upwardly mobile characters in the novel could have managed too. To be honest this was just a small question at the back of my mind, and is largely irrelevant to the quality of the story told. Whilst I might be able to argue that the rate of recovery would have been greater, it easy to see counter arguments to say that Station Eleven pitches it just right.

All in all this is very good read. There are few resolutions, which may frustrate some readers. Instead we have a snapshot of humanity in a state of flux. A disaster like this could feasibly be around the corner. Many of us will die, but humanity will find a way. Life often does. I imagine Emily St John Mandel’s depiction of how we made it would prove to be scarily prescient. This is a understated and beautiful study of humanity in crisis and a valuable addition to the genre.

This book was sent to me as part of the Amazon Vine Program 

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