Station Eleven made a lot of noise when it was published earlier this year. It was heaped in critical praise and when it began to be shortlisted for prestigious awards, even more noise was made about how Mandel had written a novel so brilliant it had defied the limitations of its genre. Such hyperbolic waffle tends to make me roll my eyes and end up disappointed (I’m looking at you, Donna Tartt), so I approached Station Eleven with caution. And as any regular reader will know, the caution proved unnecessary as this is one hell of a book.
The book opens with a brilliant MacGuffin. Arthur Leander, a renowned Hollywood star, has returned to the stage to play the title role in King Lear (think Michael Keaton in Birdman, only not bonkers). One night during the performance, he up and dies on stage from a heart attack in mid-sentence. An ex-paparazzi turned trainee EMT (who used to stalk Arthur in their previous lives) tries to save him while a child actress looks on in horror. Later that night, a deadly flu virus, previously contained to Georgia (not the US Georgia) breaks its borders and over a very short time, takes out 99.9% of the world population.
Mandel then weaves together multiple narratives and time strands to create a world where everything we took for granted is gone. One chapter is devoted to listing everything that is now gone in the brave new world the Georgia Flu created. Leander was a MacGuffin but he’s also the epicentre. All the characters in the novel somehow come back to him. Kirsten, the child actress, becomes a performer with the Travelling Symphony, going from town to town acting out Shakespeare plays for the remaining few. Jeevan holes up with his crippled brother to try and escape contracting the virus. Arthur’s wives, ex-wives, best friend and his child are all in the mix as Mandel leaps back in forth in time to give us Arthur’s history and where they all end up in the post-civilisation America.
It could have gone horribly wrong. With so many different strands and a non-traditional structure, Mandel could so easily have come unstuck. But she takes all those strands and weaves them together as delicately and effortlessly as a seasoned Chanel seamstress. She creates moments that will make you laugh, moments that will terrify (Kirsten’s encounter with the insane Prophet who has taken over a township is not for the faint-hearted) and many more moments that will bring a lump to your throat. If David Mitchell hadn’t published The Bone Clocks, then this would be my outright winner of 2014. As it is, Station Eleven will have to share the podium. I’m sure Mandel won’t mind :-).