Monthly Archive for February, 2016

What will survive of us

Did you ever fall completely in love with a character in a book and feel that you get what they’re about? That’s what happened to me when I read Emily St John Mandel’s ‘Station Eleven’ and encountered Jeevan Chaudhary. More about this later.

‘Station Eleven’ was our February book choice and an almost unanimous hit with the group. There was just one dissenting voice, a group member who didn’t enjoy reading the novel. The rest of us had nothing but praise for it and our lengthy discussion served to reveal more layers of meaning, acute observations and questions about the subject matter, narrative and characters. Once reader described not wanting to put the book down, an experience that she had always been searching for!

Dr ElevenThe premise of Station Eleven is the collapse of the known world following a deadly virus, the Georgia Flu, which sweeps across the globe wiping out whole regions, cities and communities in a matter of hours. What follows is the gradual revelation and realisation that small communities of people have survived the virus for a variety of reasons, and in different ways and locations, separate but interconnected and interdependent. Some of the group likened the book to a horrible dream as the reader is drawn into it, with a creeping realisation that this is how civilisation as we know it could come to an end, and undergo renewal.

We’re introduced to a number of characters including actor Arthur Leander who we meet briefly in the novel’s inciting incident; his death from a heart attack while performing the role of King Lear on stage in Toronto. Jeevan Chaudhary is watching the play and quickly realising Arthur is in difficulty, leaps onto the stage and attempts to resuscitate him. His attempt fails and Arthur dies. What follows catapults the reader rapidly into chaos as Jeevan wanders home in a snow storm, taking a call from a friend who works at Toronto General who tells him about the deadly Georgia Flu and the urgency of saving himself. Quickly realising the reality and seriousness of the situation, Jeevan rushes off to stock up on food and heads to his wheelchair-bound brother Frank’s apartment, where they remain locked away from the outside world for some weeks.

LakeThe novel shifts between different timelines, introducing us to characters that we meet and re-meet at key points in the story, and whose lives are interconnected and resonant with significance for the survival of others both physically and emotionally. Some readers found the time shifts disconcerting at first, together with the end of the world theme of the novel. We did all agree that this was a very exciting and compelling read, with moments of great poignancy and sadness as individuals die alone, some of whom are discovered years later as people wander through towns and cities searching for shelter and supplies, while gathering the full impact and enormity of what has happened. We loved the things that people cling to as a natural impulse within the process of surviving a disaster and thriving afterwards; music and the travelling symphony, culture and heritage with the museum that includes once indispensable items like a mobile ‘phone, and art with Miranda’s graphic novel and its beautiful drawings. We noted that the story begins and ends with Arthur, opening with his last moment on earth and ending with a description of the earlier part of his last day, and his attempts to maintain a relationship with his estranged son, a son who will survive the virus and play a significant role in the post-collapse world.

Mandel has constructed a very clever and beautifully written novel that has good pace and intriguing characters, with a startling theme that allows the reader to explore the probability and after-effects of a natural disaster, exploring memory and understanding some opposing aspects of human nature; the compulsion to exploit religion for personal gain and a response to the life-force within us to create harmony through supportive communities and new ways of living. This could have been a story of a dystopic world but it wasn’t, as we agreed that all the positive aspects of human nature that we would hope to see kick in post disaster are right there in the book. The story has moments of humour when we laughed out loud, and moments of real horror.

So now back to Jeevan who experiences a moment of cristallisation as he leaps onto the stage to save Arthur; this is what he wants to do with the rest of his life, help others. As Jeevan leaves behind a stagnant and unsatisfactory life before the collapse, losing his beloved brother Frank to the virus, he finds new meaning and personal happiness in and with what remains, anchoring himself within his community in a medical role and finding love. He helps others, drinks wine and reflects on the new world: “Even after all these years there were moments when he was overcome by his good fortune at having found this place, this tranquillity, this woman, at having lived to see a time worth living in”. Jeevan represents renewal, and the ultimate triumph of acceptance in adversity.

 

Rachel Orange