A virulent flu virus spreads like wildfire through the world. Almost everyone dies. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is the story of what happens afterwards.
Kirsten was a child when the virus struck North America, performing on stage in King Lear alongside Arthur Leander, an aging movie star. A few days later, nearly everyone is dead. The next ten years are so traumatic that Kirsten represses most of the memories. As an adult she is part of a caravan of performers, the Travelling Symphony, moving between the small settlements that remain after the collapse of civilization.
Both pre- and post-apocalyptic worlds are revealed through the stories of those whose lives intersected with Arthur’s. His first wife, Miranda, who dies in Malaysia when the virus strikes; Jeevan, a paparazzo turned paramedic who photographed Arthur; his son, Tyler, and second wife, Elizabeth; his best friend, Clark; and Kirsten, to whom he gave the comics that she carefully preserves when she’s lost everything else.
I loved this. The prose is lyrical and engaging. It’s fairly literary in style but is so well-executed that I didn’t mind. The characters are interesting and there is enough suspense in their stories to keep you turning the pages. I liked the way the stories switch between the past and the present and the connections between the characters are slowly built up. Mandel realistically presents a scenario for how the whole world might collapse in a matter of weeks if enough people die in a short space in time. It was quite chilling to think about. Definitely read this.
How have I waited so long to read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood? It’s a classic, and has been televised, and is the kind of thing that sometimes you don’t read because you think you know all you need to about it. The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985 and I really should have read it long ago.
Sometime in the 20th century a Christian extremist sect sets up a totalitarian theocracy in the US. The handmaids are a caste of women able to have children which is now a rare ability, due to widespread sterility. It’s not clear if that because of environmental toxins or out-of-control STDs. Offred doesn’t know what’s true and what isn’t, so neither does the reader. The ruling elite use propaganda to create the beliefs they want the populace to have, and much of what the narrator, Offred, relates is what she’s been encouraged to believe. The parallels between that and the distortion of reality created in today’s media are striking.
Offred describes her life, her illegal relationships with the Commander and his driver, Nick, and her eventual escape via an underground railroad. It is compelling. The claustrophobic nightmare of Offred’s life is vivid. What struck me the most was the boredom. Offred has nothing to do. People are not permitted to read or to write and a handmaid’s only role is to breed. Offred is allowed a daily trip to obtain rationed food but she has no other role, so she spends a lot of time on her own in her room doing nothing. There are exercises and prayers but Offred is not a true believer.
I was gripped by the story. I’d expected, as it was published in 1985, to find it dated. Scarily, the opposite was true. It seems like a future that is only a couple of steps away. One or two wrong turns and we could easily end up there. Atwood’s realisation of the impact of living in a totalitarian society is chilling. It’s an important book and is still relevant. If you haven’t read it yet, don’t wait any longer.
Buy my book Fragments at Amazon or Smashwords.