Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

We live in unprecedented times. March has felt like an unusually long month, one in which the Coronavirus Crisis has worryingly deepened leading to higher anxiety levels. As I write this today, there remains a big question mark over when this crisis will end or fade away. Will things go back to normal, will the world ever be the same again?

Meanwhile, the mandate to stay home means that there is more time on my hands to read books (only if I stop incessantly checking my phone). But rather than read lighter fare, I felt the urge to pick up something topical and when I checked my shelves, I felt quite drawn to Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven.

The central premise and the characters…

The premise in Station Eleven is eerily familiar to what we are witnessing right now. It centers around the Georgian Flu disease that sweeps over America, its aftermath and the events leading to it, all the while focusing on a certain group of characters.

When the novel opens, it is the last day of any normalcy in Northern America before the deadly virus encompasses the region killing millions. Arthur Leander, a renowned actor is performing on stage in a Toronto Theatre. While delivering his lines in the midst of Act 4 of King Lear, he suddenly collapses and dies on stage.

A person from the audience Jeevan Chaudhary – training to be a medical doctor – rushes onto the stage and tries to perform CPR on Leander but to no avail. Meanwhile, Jeevan spots a young girl in the wings, around 8 years old – Kirsten Raymonde – who is shaken by what she has seen, and who he tries to comfort. That is one thread of the novel and the core of the first section.

In the second section, we then move forward around twenty years after the Georgian Flu killed most of America. Kirsten Raymonde is now walking the length of the country with a band of travellers and actors called the Travelling Symphony. They visit little towns and settlements and entertain the people by performing Shakespearean plays.

In this way, the novel switches back and forth between the storylines in the world before the Flu and after.

There was the flu that exploded like a neutron bomb over the surface of the earth and the shock of the collapse that followed, the first unspeakable years when everyone was travelling, before everyone caught on that there was no place they could walk to where life continued as it had before and settled wherever they could, clustered close together for safety in truck stops and former restaurants and old motels.

A lot of the book focuses on Arthur Leander, his path to success and riches and the consequences of his failed marriages. Many other characters populate the novel but they all in some form or other are associated with Arthur Leander. There’s Miranda, Arthur’s first wife (he goes on to marry twice and also fathers a son in his second marriage called Tyler), who never really settles down to being the glamourous wife of an actor – the endless parties and media scrutiny. Being a graphic artist, she finds solace in her comic-book project called Station Eleven – a sort of a science fiction series featuring Dr Eleven and his adversaries from the Undersea who escape the Earth through a wormhole when the planet is attacked.

There’s Jeevan Chaudhary who just before the end of the world so to speak was training to be a paramedical but had dabbled in various jobs before particularly in tabloid journalism. Another character is Clark Thompson who strikes up a friendship with Leander when both are aspiring actors in their teens, but subsequently goes on to a corporate career.

In the new world, within the Travelling Symphony, we are introduced to several characters – some who were born much before the Flu and therefore were witness to both the worlds, and others who were born after. The actors fear the prophet and have to grapple with his extreme views and his band of religious fanatics.

Throughout the book, all these characters and their storylines intermingle.

The Old World and the New…

One of the themes that the author explores and particularly struck a chord with me was the destruction of the world as we know it and adjusting to the new. In the world that we live in, we pretty much take things for granted. It is a way of life we begin to yearn for and whose significance is sharply brought to focus only when it is destroyed or taken away from us. Through her characters, Emily St John Mandel also increasingly emphasizes on the marvels of technology, especially when it comes to travel and communication, things which were in abundance in the old world and pretty much unthinkable in the new.

More importantly, can people who were born in the old world and used to its ways ever adjust to the changed reality of the present world?

Some towns, as I (Kirsten) was saying, some towns are like this one, where they want to talk about what happened, about the past. Other towns, discussion of the past is discouraged. We went to a place once where the children didn’t know the world had ever been different, although you’d think all the rusted-out automobiles and telephone wires would give them a clue.

This is a recurrent theme in Miranda’s comic-book project as well where Dr Eleven and his adversaries are hiding in the deep reaches of space. But while Dr Eleven has accepted this change in circumstances, the inhabitants of the Undersea yearn to go back to Earth, to a way of life they once had.

What do you want to be remembered for?

The pursuit of fame and a meaningful life is also a topic the author dwells on. Arthur Leander wants fame, works hard for it, gets it and yet is an unhappy man in his final years. Will he be remembered for his successful career or his failed personal life?

There is also a striking conversation that Clark Thompson has with a woman in the old world where she articulates the perils of being stuck in a job that one is not enjoying that shakes Thompson profoundly.

“I think people like him think work is supposed to be drudgery punctuated by very occasional moments of happiness, but when I say happiness, I mostly mean distraction…

You go back to your desk with an afterglow, but then by four or five o’clock the day’s just turned into yet another day, and you go on like that, looking forward to five o’ clock and then the weekend and then your two or three annual weeks of paid vacation time, day in day out, and that’s what happens to your life.”

Objects, motifs and haunting scenes…

In the first chapter, in those final hours when the reality of the virus is beginning to hit home, there is a scene where Jeevan heads to the supermarket and begins to stock up (hoard?) on various goods and essentials; which was uncannily similar to what we have been witnessing during the present coronavirus crisis.

On that very day, a plane lands in Severn City Airport. But no passengers disembark. It is implied that a passenger down with the flu must have infected the others and so it has been quarantined away from the airport. Twenty years later, the plane continues to be parked there.

While there are some characters who find themselves navigating both the worlds, certain objects find their way in the new reality too. For instance, Miranda’s (Arthur’s first wife) is the creator of the Station Eleven comics in the old world, and they are in Kirsten’s possession twenty years later. A beautiful glass paperweight that Clark gifts to Arthur and Miranda is also with Kirsten now. As is a book whose contents include letters written by Arthur to an unnamed person ‘V’ detailing certain aspects of his personal life. In the new world, there is the Museum of Civilization which exhibits various mementos and things from the old world which are novelties in a post-flu world.

Station Eleven is excellent, but to label it a science fiction novel would in some sense be inaccurate. Yes, the central premise is certainly dystopian – a lethal virus contaminates a world and destroys humanity. But the author is much more interested in the human angle of this development and how people adapt to two different realities rather than describing the minute details of an altered world. It is what makes the novel very rich, immersive and absorbing. My only quibble is that some threads were tied up too neatly in the end (I have begun to appreciate ambiguity more).

But that in no way takes away the fact that Station Eleven is a vividly imagined and unique novel, one that will simmer in the mind for quite some time.

Every Eye – Isobel English

When it comes to Persephone Classics, I am afraid my reading is woefully short. I have always been keen on trying some of their titles after seeing such rave reviews on blogs and Book Twitter. A short weekend break seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally savour a Persephone title and into my suitcase went Isobel English’s novella Every Eye, a book I devoured within a couple of days…

Hatty Latterly is the protagonist in Every Eye, a novel that switches back and forth between two time periods – when Hatty is a young woman and later when she is older but newly married to a man who is considerably younger to her.

When the novel opens, Hatty is off for her honeymoon to Ibiza in Spain’s Balearic Islands. On the eve of her departure, she learns of her aunt Cynthia’s death. This triggers a flood of memories, from the time she is a young adult to when Cynthia first came into her life as well as the difficult relationship between the two. The latter essentially forms the core of the novel.

Here’s how the novella opens…

I heard today that Cynthia died, last Friday afternoon at the Ipswich County hospital, just after a cup of tea.

…It is six years since I last saw Cynthia, six years since I cut myself free from the inquisitive disapproval; the light unfriendly laugh that always accompanies her sharpest barbs – the honey and the gall mixed to such a smooth consistency that they were inseparable.

At the outset, Hatty is shown to be an awkward woman with low self-esteem.

I was over twenty-five, and I had come within the core of myself to know that I could never successfully make a real contact with another human being.

She loses her father when she is very young. Thus, not only is she raised by her mother but also by her Uncle Otway who plays a role when it comes to her education. Hatty yearns to be a musician and is training to be a concert pianist but even here she is critical of herself.

I had just sufficient self-knowledge to assess the extent of my own talent; but I could not accept it as it was. What at sixteen had promised to be the one thing that would protect me and put me far beyond the reaches of human despair had gradually shown itself to be uncoordinated and intermittent, like a small jewel that has always been hopelessly flawed and can have no intrinsic value except in the eyes of those who seek effect and not perfection.

And then one day Uncle Otway marries Cynthia marking her presence in Hatty’s life. Hatty at first is taken by her unlike her mother and often goes to her for advice. Cynthia dazzles Hatty with tales of the time she spent in Ibiza before marrying Uncle Otway. But very soon, the communication between the two becomes complicated and is seriously tested when Hatty begins seeing a much older man called Jasper Lomax.

Hatty’s self-conscious nature means that she remains tentative about how this relationship will chart out. As usual she turns to Cynthia for help, and it here that Cynthia displays a tendency towards cynicism.  And Hatty at the time is not able to discern whether there is more to it than meets the eye.

I had thought at the beginning of my love for Jasper that it would sustain a quality of agelessness and endurance, that it would become finally as sweetly preserved as a bowl of dried petals, from which I would be able to draw strength until I died.

Cynthia, who was more knowledgeable of the past, knew differently.

Meanwhile, in the present, Cynthia’s death and the trip back to the past hinders Hatty’s ability to really enjoy the honeymoon. I enjoyed reading this section because the couple’s journeys on train and boat from France to Barcelona and finally to Ibiza are wonderfully depicted by the author.

The train has been cut down to a stubbly finger; it wriggles along the foothills of the Pyrenees, broad and pink-skinned at the base, rising to distant black peaks that disappear into the froth of clouds. I never expected these mountains to be so remote and yet so accessible. We are nearing the Spanish border…

The sense of being unattractive continues to preoccupy Hatty. While her ‘lazy eye’ was the source of her tumult as a young woman, Hatty is now increasingly aware of looking older even though the eye is now no longer a problem.

Finally, there is a sense that the past and present will eventually merge and it does happen in an unexpected way practically on the last page which causes us to view the past in a different light.

Sight is a major theme explored in this novel both literally and figuratively. In her youth, Hatty struggles with a squint or ‘lazy eye’ which causes her eye to turn inward. It remains a pain point in her relationship with her mother as well as Jasper Lomax at the time. And yet, figuratively, it also means that Hatty is unable to fathom the nuances of what she is actually seeing.

A big age difference is also another topic explored. It is interesting that Hatty eschews the conventional norms of a relationship during both these pivotal periods in her life – seeing a man considerably older to her when she is young, and finally settling in with a man who is now much younger to her – only to remain uncomfortable in both. Although one gets the sense that by marrying Stephen, she has possibly entered a stable phase in her life.

Overall, I thought Every Eye was an excellent novel. Isobel English’s prose is subtle and elegant with keen insights and there are some marvellous pieces of travel writing to sink into, all packed into a compact novella of barely above 100 pages.

The Door – Magda Szabo (tr. Len Rix)

Four of Hungarian author Magda Szabo’s books have been translated into English by the ever excellent NYRB Classics. The first to be released was The Door. It garnered rave reviews, but somehow it passed me by at that time. Recently, NYRB published Abigail of which I have heard only good things so far. But rather than rush out to buy it, I decided that now was the time to finally get cracking on the book I already have, The Door.

The Door is a fascinating tale and a character study focused on the relationship between two women – the narrator who has a flourishing career as an author and her rather peculiar and unforgettable housekeeper, Emerence.

The novel opens with a disturbing dream that jolts the narrator out of her sleep.

My dreams are always the same, down to the finest detail, a vision that returns again and again. In this never changing dream I am standing in our entrance hall at the foot of the stairs, facing the steel frame and reinforced shatterproof window of the outer door, and I am struggling to turn the lock.

The narrator is having a hard time balancing the demands of her work with everyday household duties. Faced with the undeniable fact that the only solution is to hire help, she is provided with the option of contacting Emerence.

From their first meeting alone it becomes apparent that Emerence is quite a strange, singular and strong headed character. Certainly, the narrator is completely taken aback by her brazen responses. For starters, although Emerence has the prospect of a job being offered to her, she makes it clear that she will only accept the position if she is convinced that they are employers worth working for. Plus, her wages would depend on how sloppy or neat they are…very unusual terms, indeed!

Perhaps we could agree her hourly wage; that should mean something to her. But no, she didn’t want to rush her decision. She would decide what we were to pay her when she had some idea of just how slovenly and disorderly we were, and how much work we’d be. She would set about getting references – not from the old schoolmate, who would be prejudiced – and when she had, would give us her answer, even if it was no.

Eventually, Emerence comes to work for the narrator and her husband. But it’s a love-hate relationship. Emerence doesn’t care for always respecting her employers in the traditional way and many a time chooses to instead humiliate the narrator. And yet the narrator puts up with it because not only can she not manage on her own but also because Emerence is excellent at her work. Her methods maybe unique and over the top, but she keeps the house in top shape. Thus, the narrator can now wholly concentrate on her work.

Thus, begins a bond between the two women that strengthens and wanes and is also put to the test as the book progresses.

Emerence displays other eccentricities. She only greets people outside on the porch of her home, she never lets them inside. It doesn’t matter who they are. In other words, no one has ventured beyond the door (hence the title of the book) of her house. The only exception is the Inspector who in the past was compelled to examine what was inside, and Emerence ramping and raging had no choice but to let him do so. Over the time though, both of them come to respect each other.

Other characters and creatures abound, the chief among them being the narrator’s dog Viola. It’s the narrator and her husband who rescue the dog, but the animal becomes attached and comes to love Emerence fueling pangs of jealousy in the narrator.

The meat of the book, however, centers around the relationship between the two women. There are many set pieces where Emerence’s dramatic behaviour gets on the narrator’s nerves and yet the narrator cannot bring herself to detach herself completely from her. At the same time, after a misunderstanding where Emerence almost leaves, she begins to grow fond of the couple. Gradually, she reveals some of her past to the narrator – a past that involves a traumatic childhood, the burden of war and its consequences on the family she worked for at the time among other things. And yet, the narrator has no clue what’s behind the door until the very end.

Ultimately, things come to a boiling point where the narrator has to choose between her loyalty to Emerence and doing what’s actually best for her – a situation that has tragic consequences.  We are given an inkling of this in the very first chapter, but it is only later that we understand the true meaning of this statement.

Thus far I have lived my life with courage, and I hope to die that way, bravely and without lies. But for that to be, I must speak out. I killed Emerence. The fact that I was trying to save her rather than destroy her changes nothing.

The Door then is a novel that explores the themes of old age, dependence, friendship and the lengths you are willing to go to preserve that bond. The two women, in their own way, come to depend on each other. And yet, Emerence keeps alluding to the fact that the narrator has no clue as to what it takes to really love a person. Is the narrator selfish, does she understand the concept of sacrifice?

Overall, The Door is a strong piece of work – memorable characters and a solid plot. And yet, I felt the novel dragged in places, the dynamics between the two women and how it played out did get a bit repetitive sometimes. But that’s a minor quibble in what was otherwise a book that will stay in my mind for a while.