The Best of the Blues – Fitzcarraldo Editions

One of my favourite UK based independent publisher is Fitzcarraldo Editions, which specializes in publishing contemporary literature, a combination of translated lit and those with English as the original language. What distinguishes them are the covers – plain and simple, and yet stylish and striking. These covers come in two colours – Blue (for fiction), and White (for non-fiction, typically essay collections). I have read only the ‘Blues’ so far, and these are some of them that I have loved and would recommend.  

Of course, this list will evolve and change, as I keep reading more of their books, and also begin delving into the ‘Whites.’

POND by Claire-Louise Bennett

Pond is an intriguing book, an absorbing and lyrical work, and can be interpreted as either a short story collection or a novel with chapters of varying length, all with the same protagonist. Some of these chapters are just one page, others run into twenty pages. Essentially, the book dwells on the thoughts of a woman living by herself in a rented cottage on the west coast of Ireland as she ponders over the pleasures and pitfalls of a life in solitude.  Bennett has flair for making poetic observations about mundane, everyday life, and at the same time also creating a slightly unsettling atmosphere. This was the first book that I read from the Fitzcarraldo catalogue, and since then I have always kept an eye on their new releases, which are always interesting and well worth exploring.

THE DOLL’S ALPHABET by Camilla Grudova

The Doll’s Alphabet is a collection of 13 stories, each fantastical, and weird but in a good way. Here’s how the first story ‘Unstitching’ opens:

One afternoon, after finishing a cup of coffee in her living room, Greta discovered how to unstitch herself. Her clothes, skin and hair fell from her like the peeled rind of a fruit, and her true body stepped out. Greta was very clean so she swept her old self away and deposited it in the rubbish bin before even taking notice of her new physiognomy, the difficulty of working her new limbs offering no obstruction to her determination to keep a clean home.

Another strong story ‘Agata’s Machine’, is a tale of two eleven year olds – the narrator and Agata, who is a genius excelling in maths and science. One day, Agata shows a sewing machine in her attic to the narrator, and for days on end both the girls are mesmerized by it.  This then is an unusual, dark story about obsession and indulging in destructive activity and what happens when it gets out of control.

Sewing machines, dolls, factories, mermaids, babies are some of the recurring motifs in this collection, and a general air of dirt and dereliction permeate all of these stories. Grudova has a way of drawing you into her surreal, unusual world with prose that is enthralling. There is also a whiff of feminism in some of the stories, and an abundance of anachronistic subjects, an ode to something ancient, an older era. Grudova has painted a different world; a macabre world of fables, dreams, nightmares and otherworldliness. Each of these stories is haunting, dark, striking and will stay in your mind for a long, long time.

TELL THEM OF BATTLES, ELEPHANTS & KINGS by Mathias Enard (Translated from French by Charlotte Mandell)

I love Mathias Enard and pretty much plan to read everything he’s written. I was mesmerized by Compass, and the only reason why I have not included that book here is because I read the Open Letter edition.

But his shorter and latest work, Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants is also excellent. At the end of this slim novella, Mathias Enard lists a series of factual events with proof of their existence. One of them in essence is that the Sultan had invited the celebrated sculptor and artist – Michelangelo – to build a bridge over the Golden Horn in Constantinople. There is no record that Michelangelo ever took up this offer and travelled to the East. That’s because he never did.

But Mathias Enard cleverly builds his story around this premise – What if Michelangelo had accepted the Sultan’s project?

Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants then is a wonderful slice of alternative history that also allows Enard to revisit his favourite theme – the meeting of the East and the West in the pursuit of art. It is a short book and a great entry point into Enard’s work, if one is daunted by his bigger books.  

HURRICANE SEASON by Fernanda Melchor (Translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes)

Right from the beginning, the pace of Hurricane Season never lets up. Set in the decrepit village of La Matosa in rural Mexico, the book begins when a group of boys playing in the fields come across a corpse floating in the irrigation canal, immediately identified as that of the Witch. The Witch is a highly reviled figure in the village, an object of malicious gossip and pretty much an outcast to most of La Matosa’s inhabitants.

The murder of the Witch then forms the foundation upon which the bulk of the novel rests. We are presented with four main narratives which circle around and closer to her murder, providing more details as the novel progresses. But other the gruesome killing itself, Melchor highlights a toxic environment where the characters are caught up in a vicious circle of poverty, casual violence, and sexual abuse ingrained into their psyche with no hope of a better future.

Despite such a dark subject matter, Hurricane Season is brilliant and incredibly fascinating. Melchor’s prose is brutal, electrifying and hurtles at the reader like a juggernaut. The sentences are long and there are no paragraphs but that in no way makes the book difficult to read. Rather, this style propels the narrative forward and ratchets up the tension, always keeping the reader on the edge. A cleverly told tale with a compelling structure at its heart, Melchor’s vision is unflinching and fearless.

THE OTHER NAME (SEPTOLOGY I-II) by Jon Fosse (Translated from Norwegian by Damion Searls)

I have been waxing eloquent about The Other Name by Norwegian author Jon Fosse, one of my favourite books this year, and one which I will highlight again here. The Other Name is about Asle, an ageing painter and widower reminiscing about his life. The book has an existential bent as Asle reflects on themes of love & loss (relationships), light & darkness (art). At the same time, he tries to help his doppelganger, also a painter called Asle, who is alone and an alcoholic. It’s the writing that is quite something though – highly unusual but poetic, the prose feels musical with its own rhythm, and has the power to transfix the reader.

As I write this, I have been reading another latest Fitzcarraldo Edition – The Appointment by Katharina Volckmer, a novella that is less than 100 pages, and as fascinating as I expected. Maybe, it will join the list the next time I compile one.

A Month of Reading – July 2020

July 2020 was another excellent reading month. I managed to read seven books all of which were very good. My favourites were Earth and High Heaven, Look At Me and The Weather in the Streets.

Here is a round-up of the seven books with links provided for those I have reviewed in detail separately.

Earth and High Heaven – Gwethalyn Graham

Earth and High Heaven is a wonderfully absorbing novel the focal point of which is a love affair between a Gentile woman and a Jewish man portrayed against a backdrop of racial prejudice.

The novel is set in the city of Montreal in Canada in the early 1940s when the war was still raging in Europe. The implication of racial prejudice is a big theme of the novel, particularly the danger of making sweeping generalisations.

Erica Drake, an English Canadian born to a wealthy family, falls in love with Marc Reiser, a Jewish man with origins in Austria. Erica’s parents are highly opposed to this relationship because of their deep-seated prejudices against the Jews and they refuse to cast them aside and see Marc as an individual. Will the couple surmount all odds and eventually marry?

Earth and High Heaven is a brilliantly immersive novel. Graham’s writing is sensitive and intelligent and many of the discussions and arguments between Erica and her parents and Erica and Marc are tense but riveting.

Look At Me – Anita Brookner

At a little under 200 pages, Look At Me is a compelling and searing portrait of loneliness and wanting to belong.

By day, our narrator, Frances Hinton works in a medical library and in the evenings spends time in solitude in her large flat, writing. However, one day the charismatic doctor Nick Fraser and his equally dynamic wife Alix appear on the scene and Frances finds herself in their company thoroughly enjoying herself. Until something terribly goes wrong and Frances finds that the Frasers are no longer interested in her.

Look At Me then is quite a fascinating but heartbreaking account of a lonely woman who can never really belong to the social circle she wants to be a part of, having to contend with the role of an outsider.

Brookner’s writing is brilliant. Her sentences are precise and exquisitely crafted and she captures perfectly Frances’ mental state as she is drawn towards the allure of the Frasers and then cruelly cast aside. 

The Invitation to the Waltz – Rosamond Lehmann

Invitation to the Waltz is the first of the Olivia Curtis novels. When the book opens, Olivia has turned seventeen and there is a family gathering to celebrate and present her with gifts. The novel charts the emotions of a young girl on the cusp of womanhood – the anxiety as well as the excitement of making a good impression at the dance, hopes for a schedule full of dance partners alternating with the fear of being left alone.

Lehmann’s prose is lush and beautiful and I was immediately struck by her impressionistic writing style. Set in the 1930s, she also subtly brings to the fore the class differences prevalent in the society at the time.

The Weather in the Streets – Rosamond Lehmann

Set ten years after Invitation to the Waltz, The Weather in the Streets revolves round the doomed love affair between Olivia Curtis and the married Rollo Spencer who is first introduced to readers in the final few pages of the first novel.

Olivia is the narrator and she is now residing in London, in cramped quarters with her cousin Etty and is leading a bohemian lifestyle with her artist set of friends. While on a trip to the countryside to meet her family, particularly her father who is down with pneumonia, she starts talking to Rollo Spencer on the train and they hit it off.

From thereon Olivia and Rollo embark on a passionate affair that is played out behind closed doors and shrouded in a veil of secrecy.

Lehmann brilliantly captures the stages of the affair as it pans out from Olivia’s point of view – the first heady days of the affair gradually when the world is seen through rose-tinted glasses, and then followed by moments of desperation as Olivia endlessly waits for Rollo’s call.  

Lehmann manages to turn the ‘done-to-death’ tale of an extra-marital affair into something entirely new, and her sensitive portrayal of Olivia’s plight is truly heartbreaking and evokes the sympathy of the reader.

The Hours Before Dawn – Celia Fremlin

“I’d give anything – anything – for a night’s sleep.”

Thus begins Celia Fremlin’s wonderful novel The Hours Before Dawn. The protagonist Louise Henderson is an utterly exhausted housewife. Her newborn son Michael insistently wails every night at an odd hour thereby disrupting her sleep. So as to not disturb her husband Mark and her daughters Margery and Harriet, Louise often takes Michael to the scullery to calm him down as soon as he starts crying in the dead of the night.

The lack of sleep is debilitating for Louise because for a larger part of the day she is trying to complete the household chores in a dazed state leaving her very tired. The day is busy as she has to juggle her daughters’ school activities, meals for the family and keeping the house clean, all of which begin to take a toll on her physically and mentally.

Louise has to do it all single-handedly. Her husband Mark is not much of a support. Michael’s night crying annoys him. And his meager attempts to show concern for her only ends up stressing Louise more.

Moreover, the neighbours are of no help either. They are judgmental, they consistently complain about the noise the children make, and Louise finds herself apologizing all the time. Louise is also wracked with guilt and inadequacy as she struggles with all the multi-tasking expected of her.

Into this household, comes a new lodger to stay – Vera Brandon. When Louise shows Vera the room, she accepts it without asking any questions which surprises Louise but doesn’t particularly distress her at the time since the family needs the extra income with a new baby born.

Things begin to get sinister when a friend of Louise’s, Beatrice, makes a chance remark that Vera had approached her husband Humphrey to enquire about the Hendersons. This unsettles Louise since she is under the impression that Vera had responded to the Hendersons’ advertisement in the newspapers.

As Louise’s suspicions about Vera grow, so do her exhaustion levels so much so that there are times when her dreams begin to merge with reality.

This is a wonderful novel, which besides having shades of a psychological thriller, also has moments of black comedy thrown in. In a world where it is taken for granted that motherhood is only full of joys, Fremlin provides a realistic portrayal of how challenging being a mother can be and how society is not always kind in understanding this.  

Who Among Us? – Mario Benedetti (tr. Nick Caistor)

This is a story of an unusual love triangle where the reader gets to see the perspective of all the three participants.

Miguel and Alicia fall in love when they are teenagers and their relationship proceeds simply until the charismatic Lucas turns up on the scene. Miguel sees the spark grow between Alicia and Lucas as they have passionate discussions on various topics, and he assumes that he and Alicia have no future. And yet, Alicia chooses to marry Miguel, and Lucas fades away. After eleven years of marriage (and two kids), Miguel somehow comes to see their union as a mistake. Thus, he persuades Alicia to meet Lucas whence a chance for a trip to Buenos Aires turns up.

Miguel’s perspective on the events is in the form of undated notebook entries as he analyses in deep detail the nature of the relations between the three of them. Through his entries, it becomes apparent that Miguel is a passive man who considers himself second-rate. We see Alicia’s perspective in the form of a letter she writes to Miguel which casts a different light on what we have read in Miguel’s account. Alicia loved Miguel but acknowledges that their marriage has deteriorated and largely blames him for it. Lucas’ viewpoints are displayed to us in the form of a short story, including footnotes, which explains the text and how it relates to the reality of what happened.

At less than 100 pages, Who Among Us? is an absorbing novella that explores the themes of love, missed opportunities and misunderstandings.

Solea – Jean-Claude Izzo (tr. Howard Curtis)

I had read the first two books in Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy – Total Chaos and Chourmo – a few years back. Billed as Mediterranean noir, these books featured the cynical, beaten-down cop Fabio Montale and his attempts to solve the crimes surrounding his best friends Manu and Ugi killed by the Mafia and cops respectively.

What also stood out in these books is the vivid evocation of Marseilles, its sights and smells, various mouth-watering descriptions of food and drink. It also highlighted the uglier side of the city – the poverty, crime, racism towards immigrants and the crippling corruption.

Both of them were very atmospheric books but for some reason I completely forgot about the third installment in this trilogy – Solea.

In Solea, Montale’s former lover and investigative journalist Babette is on the run from the Mafia as she is about to publish some shocking details about the organization. The Mafia wants Montale to find her for them. To show that they are dead serious about it, two people very close to Montale are murdered.

That’s the basic premise of the plot and I won’t reveal more. But Solea is also suffused with Montale ruminating a lot about his past and the level of growing corruption and extremism in Marseilles and on a larger scale in France. In that sense, the novel is quite cynical and bleak.  While Solea is a solid book, I somehow felt that it was not on the same level as either Total Chaos or Chourmo.

That’s it for July.

I intend to devote August entirely to Women in Translation (WIT Month), and have begun my reading with Olga Tukarczuk’s novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead and Eileen Chang’s collection of novellas Love in A Fallen City, both of which I am enjoying.

Earth and High Heaven – Gwethalyn Graham

I have a very small Persephone Books collection. But what I have read from their catalogue so far has been simply great. Earlier this year, in March, I really liked Isobel English’s Every Eye, and followed it up with Gwethalyn Graham’s Earth and High Heaven this month. What a lovely novel it turned out to be.

Earth and High Heaven is a wonderfully absorbing novel the focal point of which is a love affair between a Gentile woman and a Jewish man portrayed against a backdrop of racial prejudice.

The novel is set in the city of Montreal in Canada in the early 1940s when the war was still raging in Europe. The opening lines pretty much sets the tone for what is to follow…

One of the questions they were sometimes asked was where and how they had met, for Marc Reiser was a Jew, originally from a small town in northern Ontario, and from 1933 until he went overseas in September 1942, a junior partner in the law firm of Maresch and Aaranson in Montreal, and Erica Drake was Gentile, one of the Westmount Drakes. Montreal society is divided roughly into three categories labeled ‘French, ‘English’, and ‘Jewish’, and there is not much coming and going between them, particularly between the Jews and either of the two groups, for although, as a last resort, French and English can be united under the heading ‘Gentile’, such an alliance merely serves to isolate the Jews more than ever.

We know from this that Erika Drake and Marc Reiser fall in love with each other but we are also made aware of how the couple are going to have a long struggle ahead given the backgrounds they come from. Racial tension was rampant in Montreal at the time, but Graham points out that the Jews weren’t necessarily singled out although they bore most of the brunt. There were nuances in discrimination within various strata of Montreal society.

Hampered by racial-religious distinctions to start with, relations between the French, English and Jews of Montreal are still further complicated by the fact that all three groups suffer from an inferiority complex – the French because they are a minority in Canada, the English because they are a minority in Quebec, and the Jews because they are a minority everywhere.

Erica is an English Canadian born in the affluent Drake family. Her father Charles Drake is the President of the Drake Importing Company and the family resides in a sumptuous home in Westmount. Erica has two siblings – an elder brother Anthony and a younger sister Miriam. Both Anthony and Miriam marry partners against Charles Drake’s wishes, but ultimately it doesn’t matter much because he is not close to either of them and does not care greatly for their opinion.

But Charles shares a special bond with Erica. They get along very well and Charles respects her in a way he does not respect his other two children.

Marc Reiser is Jewish, his parents having migrated to Canada from Austria several years earlier. Leopold Reiser, Marc’s father owns a small planning mill in Manchester, Ontario. Marc has an elder brother David who is a doctor in a remote, rural region of the country.

The book opens right in the midst of a big dinner party held at the Drake residence. Marc Reiser is brought to the gathering by an acquaintance of the Drakes’ – the French Canadian Rene de Sevigny whose sister has married Anthony Drake. Marc Reiser knows no one at the party and soon Rene abandons him leaving Marc to fend for himself. Eventually Erica and Mark meet and strike up a conversation. They immediately hit it off. When it’s time to say goodbye, Erica offers to introduce Marc to her father but Charles looks through Marc and completely ignores him.

Erica is offended by Charles’ rudeness. Attempts to make him understand this are futile because Charles is set in his ways and refuses to budge from his deep-seated prejudices against the Jews.

Charles behaviour does not deter Erica from seeing Marc. Quite the contrary. Soon the relationship between the two blossoms and starts getting serious. And Erica’s parents are aware of this.

A significant chunk of the novel then revolves around the discussions that Erica has with her parents regarding Marc as she tries to make them come around to her point of view. Erica, thankfully, is not entirely on her own. Her sister Miriam supports her and immediately likes Marc when she is introduced to him for the first time. Their parents, however, think differently and judge Marc without even meeting him. Continuous quarrels with her parents finally begin to take a toll on Erica and her health.

Will Erica succeed? Will she and Marc eventually surmount all odds so that they can marry?

Erica Drake is an interesting creation. Her upbringing means that she grows up with the same set of prejudices but she is discerning enough to be ashamed of them and change her way of thinking.

She had met a good many Jews before Marc, but in some way which already seemed to her inexplicable she had neglected to relate the general situation with any one individual. Evidently some small and yet vital part of the machinery of her thought had failed to work until this moment, or worse still, she might even have defeated its efforts to function by taking refuge in the comfortable delusion that even if these prejudices and restrictions were actually in effective operation, they would only be applied against – well, against what is usually designated as ‘the more undesirable type of Jew’. In other words, against people who more or less deserved it.

Now she saw for the first time that it was the label, not the man, that mattered.

Indeed, by working as a reporter at the Post, she has no qualms coming down the society ladder a bit or two even among her own set.

When she was twenty-one, her fiancé had been killed in a motor accident two weeks before she was to be married; not long after, she awoke to the realization that her father’s income had greatly shrunk as a result of the depression and that it would probably be a long time before she would fall in love again. She got a job as a reporter on the society page of the Montreal Post and dropped, overnight, from the class which is written about to the class which does the writing,. It took people quite a while to get used to the change.

Marc loves Erica enough to keep meeting her till regimental duty beckons him, but at the same time he is bogged down by the seemingly insurmountable odds against them. He has a fatal sense of the relationship not surviving even though Erica thinks otherwise.

The implication of racial prejudice, then, is a big theme of the novel, particularly the danger of making sweeping generalisations. Erica tries hard to make Charles see Marc as an individual and appreciate his many qualities rather than being dead set against him because of general racism towards Jews. Every individual is different and it is important to understand these nuances as against taking a collective approach and putting everyone on the same boat.

The other theme Graham looks at is the power play between men and women. This is displayed in details, such as Erica’s irritation when Rene orders lunch for her at a restaurant without consulting her and also explored a bit deeper when Charles tries to persuade Erica to leave her job at the Post and join the family business instead.

…as a woman you can just go so far and then you’re stuck in a job where you depend your life taking orders from some fathead with half your brains, whose only advantage over you is the fact that he happens to wear trousers.

Earth and High Heaven then is a brilliantly immersive novel. Graham’s writing is sensitive and intelligent and many of the discussions and arguments between Erica and her parents and Erica and Marc are tense but riveting. The characters are wonderfully fleshed out. Plus, Graham has a deep understanding of the various facets of 1940s Montreal society and this is superbly articulated in various dialogues between the characters.

Highly recommended!

A Month of Reading: March 2020

March was easily the strangest month ever, one that felt like it would never end. Despite the coronavirus crisis only worsening, I took solace from the fact that the books I managed to read during the orders to mandatorily stay at home were all very good.

I read six books and could have read more had I not been incessantly checking my phone for the latest news. Of these, I have reviewed two, and should hopefully write about the others in the coming weeks.

In the meanwhile, here is a brief round-up of what I read in March…

Every Eye – Isobel English

Awkward Hatty Latterly is the protagonist in Isobel English’s superb novella Every Eye. It focuses on two pivotal periods in Hatty’s life – the past when she is a young adult in a relationship with a considerably older man, and the present when she is on a honeymoon with her husband who is much younger to her.

Eventually both the past and the present will merge in an unexpected way. You can read the full review by clicking on the title.

Fate – Jorge Consiglio

Fate focuses on four individuals – or rather two couples – one pair who is gradually falling apart, while the other is seemingly coming close.

Karl and Marina have been together for ten years and have a young son, Simón. Karl is a German-born oboist at Argentina’s national orchestra, and Marina is a meteorologist. On a field trip, she meets fellow researcher Zárate, and begins a fling. Then there is Amer, a dynamic and successful taxidermist. At a group therapy session for smokers, Amer falls for the younger Clara.

By focusing on the minutiae of everyday life, this was an interesting tale which showcased all the characters trying to control their lives or their destiny in some way or the other but not always succeeding in doing so.

A Quiet Place – Seicho Matsumoto

When on a business trip to Kobe, Tsuneo Asai, a hardworking government bureaucrat, receives news of his wife’s death due to a cardiac arrest. This is not wholly unexpected given that she suffered from heart ailments. But yet, there are some aspects of her death that seem out of the ordinary to Asai.

As he delves deeper into the matter, he realizes that his wife – who he thought was shy and mostly by herself – had a kind of a secret life he was not aware of.

This was an absorbing tale where more than the death/ crime, the psychological depth of the characters – notably Asai – carried more weight. The last section particularly had shades of a typical Patricia Highsmith novel (I am a Highsmith fan).

Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

With the coronavirus raging all over the world, 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 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.

It is a vividly imagined and unique novel with a focus on humanity at its heart. And you can read the full review by clicking on the title.

Actress – Anne Enright

In Actress, Norah FitzMaurice is narrating her mother’s story in the form of a book she addresses to her husband. Her mother is Katherine O’Dell and we learn of her ascent to stardom, her gradual decline, and her descent into madness further accentuated when she shoots a renowned producer in his leg.

That is the bare bones of the tale, one that explores the relationship between mother and daughter and the price each has to pay for being in the limelight. Enright’s prose shines on every page – intelligent, wise and sensitive and it was a pleasure to lose oneself into the book.

I have read two Enrights now, the other being The Forgotten Waltz, which examined an extramarital affair against the backdrop of the financial crisis in Ireland. Although Actress was excellent, I still much preferred The Forgotten Waltz where Enright’s writing was simply brilliant.

The Wycherly Woman – Ross Macdonald

Here’s what the blurb on the book states…

“Phoebe Wycherly was missing two months before her wealthy father hired Archer to find her. That was plenty of time for a young girl who wanted to disappear to do so thoroughly–or for someone to make her disappear. Before he can find the Wycherly girl, Archer has to deal with the Wycherly woman, Phoebe’s mother, an eerily unmaternal blonde who keeps too many residences, has too many secrets, and leaves too many corpses in her wake.”

This was another excellent Macdonald novel – the ninth in the Lew Archer series – with a tightly woven plot, surprising twists and turns and beautiful descriptions of California as well as the seedy world of blackmailers.

That’s it. I thought all the books were well worth reading but my favourites of the bunch were Station Eleven, A Quiet Place and The Wycherly Woman.

As April begins, I have embarked on my first Shirley Jackson novel – We Have Always Lived in the Castle – and I am already intrigued.

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.