Book Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (published by Picador)

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (published by Picador)

Station Eleven, the fourth novel by Canadian writer Emily St. John Mandel, is one of those books that lives up to the “unputdownable” cliche. It’s the kind of book you want to cancel dinner plans for, a book so good you’re glad when your friend is late meeting you at the pub, a book that you stay up until way after bedtime to read, squinting through tired eyes.

And all that love for a Science Fiction book too, a genre I generally approach with as much caution as if it were a radioactive alien. Not only that, but as a sensitive sap, I tend to avoid end of the world novels, steeped as they are in all-too familiar scenes of terrified people running frantically straight into the arms of whatever beast the author has chosen to slay humanity with.

Station Eleven is more considered, calm and measured than zombie stuffed end-of-civilisation novels and, while undeniably melancholy, there are hints of hope that lift it above the unrelenting gloom of many post-apocalyptic novels (hello, The Road). It is more than a story of human survival after the black hand of Georgian Flu picks off 99% of the human race, it’s about what makes humans tick – love and loss, art and music. It’s gripping, yet thoughtful and considered in a way thrillers can often forget to be in their hurry to tell the story.

The novel oscillates between pre-flu days and the years after it, largely missing the grittier details of the characters first troubled years following the collapse of civilisation. Mandel handles the structure deftly, giving us enough breadcrumbs of the characters’ fates for us to be eager to follow them through their journey. It begins in a theatre in Toronto just hours before the devastating outbreak of flu, where fading film star Arthur Leander suffers a fatal heart attack while performing King Lear. Amongst the audience is Jeevan, a former paparazzo turned training paramedic (perhaps the least likely part of this story) who attempts to save Arthur’s life in vain, But his attention is caught by one of the three young actresses who, in an unusual (and really rather good) stage direction, appear to the deranged king as a hallucination of his three daughters when they were children.

One of them is Kirsten who was particularly fond of Arthur. In return, just before he goes on stage for the final time, he presents the child with a copy of Station Eleven, a hand drawn comic about a group of people taking refuge in space from a toxic Earth made by his first wife Miranda. The comic and Kirsten will outlive the flu and the devastating years following it, although both of them are battered and worn. In the intervening years, Kirsten has become part of a Travelling Symphony, a band of players who go from settlement to settlement reenacting Shakespeare and performing concerts.

As Jeevan shuts himself in his wheelchair bound brother’s flat with several weeks of supplies following a tip off from a doctor friend, Arthur’s oldest friend, Clark, is jumping on one of the last planes out of New York. Bound for Toronto, his flight is diverted to St. Deborah by the Water airport, a place he is destined to call home for the next 20 years. Amongst the other passengers is Arthur’s second wife, the beautiful Elizabeth, and their son Tyler. As the story swings between past and present, the dots between the characters are joined, with Arthur – though long gone – at the centre.

Mandel is aware of the ubiquitous nature of end of the world literature and Hollywood’s version haunts the characters’ understanding of their predicament – how many times have we heard people, grappling to find a way of making sense of an awful event, describe it as like “something from a film”? But Station Eleven avoids many of the genres’ cliches, going deeper than just the human race’s battle to avoid the fate of the dinosaurs. The Travelling Symphony’s motto is survival is insufficient – a phrase from Star Trek, this is a book with a humorous vein – and it can also be taken to be the novel’s main theme. Art is a bolster, a comfort blanket as well as a reflection of truth. The band of actors performing Shakespeare 500 years after his plays were first performed in plague ridden London – a country now so distant in post-flight times as to be another planet; Miranda spending hours creating Station Eleven merely to be lost in the process; Clark curating his Museum of Civilisation – this is what keeps humans alive as much as bread and water.

Station Eleven is sad and a little scary, but ultimately hopeful. Civilisation is slowly crawling its way back to some kind of order by Year 20, but there is a certain appeal in the simple way of life forced on the survivors despite some very obvious dangers. I was left wanting more, but the book lingered in my memory like a melancholy tune.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: The Machine by James Smythe

The Machine by James Smythe

The Machine by James Smythe published by Blue Door

It’s sometime in the future (although we’re not told when). England is very hot, so hot that rather than running out to frazzle themselves in the heat, these newly sun-savvy Brits opt to stay in air-conditioned rooms (an unimaginable future). Lots of bad things  (war, floods, bonkers weather) have happened, although we’re never told exactly what and why. The Isle of Wight, has – for reasons that are never made clear  – become an outpost for hooded hooligans, making it less a 1950s idyll, more a Hackney in the 90s.

Living amongst these hard-nosed yoofs is Beth, a school teacher with a secret. Her husband, Vic, was a soldier in one of those wars we’re never told about and was shot in the head. His post traumatic stress was treated with a new technology – the Machine – that was meant to wipe bad memories and replace them with nicer ones. But something went wrong, and early adopters (among them Vic) had all of their memories wiped, including those innate in us. Vic is, when we first meet him, an empty shell, who can’t remember how to be human and has spent the good part of five years in a care home. But Beth is determined to get her husband back (physically and mentally), the only problem is that the Machine, the only way of restoring Vic’s memories to him, has been banned. Can a black-market model be the answer to all her problems?

Of course, not. This is a dark tale with very little (any?) chinks of light. Written without quotation marks, the narrative is a continual, relentless barrage of bleakness. This would be OK if I felt we were getting somewhere with this tale set in our near future (which, sadly, still includes Tesco). But the story was a little stodgy and the lack of a backstory left me feeling like I was fumbling about in the dark for narrative purchase. Why was the world in such disarray? The ozone layer is mentioned once, something happened in Iran – which presumably isn’t the fault of the ozone layer, but who knows – there were floods, there may be more and London has a huge, ugly flood defence running the length of the Thames and spoiling the view from the South Bank, tsk. Why is Beth living on this island of reprobates? Why is it an island of reprobates?

All these niggles are kind of besides the point, as the real subject of  James Smythe’s tale is the age-old story of technology taking on a life of its own (think Frankenstein’s monster with an iCloud account). But The Machine only really cranks up towards the end when the boundaries between reality, truth and memory become blurred in a tense and surprising finale (the ending is great in its in muddiness, it genuinely took me my surprise and shook me out of my nonchalant detachment from the story).

I liked Smythe’s vision of the future that was believable, if frustratingly sketchily drawn, and there was hints of a great story that would occasionally spark to life only to become stuck like the spinning beach ball of doom. But I do love to be tripped up by a novel, as I was with the ending to this sci-fi tale, so the sometimes hard slog through The Machine’s internal workings had a rewarding pay off.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: High-Rise by JG Ballard

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JG Ballard’s world of dystopian urban landscapes set somewhere in the near future has become so recognisable that he’s gained his owned adjective: Ballardian. These Ballardian novels evoke collapsing societies set against shiny modern worlds that are at once a sci-fi step removed from us and yet all too recognisable. In Ballard’s world, the collapse of our so-called civilised society can be sparked by something as simple as a smashed champagne bottle.

Ballard understood the fragility of the human psyche better than most. His teenage internment in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Shanghai, described in his autobiography Empire of the Sun, shaped his view of human nature and, in turn, his novels. High-Rise is the second in Ballard’s urban disaster trilogy, book-ended by Crash and Concrete Island and follows the professional middle-class inhabitants of a flashy newly built, upscale tower block as they revolt against it.

I first read High-Rise years ago during my “Ballard-period” (I used to have a habit of reading an author’s oeuvre consecutively, an excellent way of killing your love for a writer) back in my pre-London days. Its tale of professional people descending into anarchy within a 40 storey tower block has loomed large in my mind ever since, especially now I live in London and am under the shadows of tenement blocks that are increasingly owned by high-earning white collar workers. (The Erno Goldfinger designed Trellick Tower in Ladbroke Grove, which is said to be one of the inspirations of High-Rise and was originally built solely for council tenants, is now one of London’s most sort-after addresses. Art, life etc).

Ballard begins the novel at the end with one of literature’s most enduring sentences before rewinding to the moment Dr Robert Laing pinpoints as the trigger that set off the building’s decline into a violent, lawless society with its primitive class system and clan-led brutality (that champagne bottle).

Amongst those sharing Laing’s experiences of a civilisation gone to ruin high above the streets of London are Anthony Royal, the building’s architect, a modernist Bond villain-like character presiding over his kingdom like a deposed despot – or your average London landlord. Then there’s Richard Wilder, a burly TV director on whom perhaps the building has the biggest impact, his madness gaining currency as he climbs the floors in a bid to conquer his concrete mountain. As the swimming pools fill with the carcasses of dogs and the air-con vents are blocked by faeces, the three men attempt to seize control of their minds – and the building.

Ballard’s vision of the impact architecture has on the individual runs through many of his novel and it’s particularly obvious in High-Rise where the building is as much a character as the tenants. But while the middle-class inhabitants of the tower block desend into anarchy, Ballard’s not dismissing this return to a simpler life as a bad thing. Are, he seems to be asking, Laing and his neighbours simply de-evolutionising back to where we should be? See how easy our primeval power makes it for us to adapt to less sophisticated situations (this is the same logic I apply to music festivals). And while High-Rise is often described as a vision of urban dystopia, when we first meet Robert Laing, he’s having a jolly old time gnawing on a dog’s barbecued leg amongst his rubbish strewn balcony, describing himself as the happiest he’s ever been. So perhaps it’s the world outside the high rise that is getting it wrong?

I enjoyed lapping up Ballard’s hugely imaginative and sinister world again, although I remembered half way through High-Rise that bingeing on Ballard had given me a distaste for his very distinct writing style. He writes with economy and little emotion, his prose as brutal and cold as a tenement block in November. Similarly, his characters are broadly sketched and his prose remains at a constant, middle-lane pace. Of course the simplicity of his writing hides his brilliance as a writer, the shocks of violence all the more brutal told with minimal fuss, while the juxtaposition of events are more sharply felt by the blandness of his description.

As a vision of an urine-soaked hell, High-Rise is an all too real one, and, like all Ballard books I’ve read, it’s a compulsive and powerful novel that lingers on the mind like the stench of a rubbish strewn hallway on a summer’s day.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux

Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux

Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux

Dr Nicholas Slopen is an average academic for whom books are the “centre of the world”. You can practically smell the brown cords and the musty scent of old books emanating from him.

Nicholas – Nicky – has carved a bit of a niche for himself as a Dr Samuel Johnson expert, with one well received book of the great man’s letters under his literary belt, he’s now in the process of producing another volume. Johnson’s words and his 18th century world have help create who Nicholas is. The books, the words, the thoughts he’s absorbed over the years are as vital as DNA and he’s about to learn just how vital in a hugely violent and degenerative way.

We’re first introduced to Nicholas Slopen by an ex-girlfriend, Susanna Laidlaw-Robinson, who opens the novel with a prelude of the story that follows. Nicholas enters her life years after they last met only for him to die in her house hours later. Confusingly for her, Nicholas Slopen actually died a year before and there are grisly post-mortem pictures to prove it. So who was this man with Nicky’s eyes who called her by his pet name for her,‘Suki’? Sure, he looked different and the tattoos were puzzling, but we all grow older and that was unmistakably Nicky’s personality imprinted on that face.

The answer lies down the back of the sofa where Susanna finds a USB left by the doubly-dead Nicholas. Its contents reveal how ex-Nicholas Scholey came to be in her Midland’s shop. His tale is Strange Bodies.

Nicholas journey to the Midland’s begins with a meeting with the perfectly drawn Hunter, a music biz mogul whose part hippy, part sociopath. He calls on Nicky’s expertise to verify the provenance of what are believed to be long-lost letters of Johnson’s. Excited by the thought of Johnson treasures, Nicholas’ agreement to investigate this slash of potential literary gold pulls him into a deadly experiment driven by Hunter’s vanity and ego.

Strange Bodies is a book about how words make up who we are, our bodies – our carcass as they are referred to later on in the novel – are little more than vessels to transport the real us. There’s undoubtedly a Frankenstein shadow hanging over Strange Bodies, but Theroux’s monster has a 21st century sophisticated and humanity that Mary Shelley’s gothic novel lacks. There are quotes from Shakespeare, Milton, and of course Johnson. London – the city Johnson loved, “if a man is bored of…etc” – is an unassuming, but powerful background as Theroux takes us from the fancy squares behind Piccadilly to shabby South London suburbs.

Strange Bodies is an absorbing tale that genre-wise is hard to define. It’s part literary thriller, part sci-fi, a novel that weaves literature and science, words and theories into a compelling narrative. It should read like a completely bonkers, far-fetched tale, like a Jasper Fforde book on steroids, but it’s firmly rooted in real life, littered with enough references to scientific theory and told with such confidence and elegance that you don’t question the strange events that unfold.

For a book about language and the dusty world of academia, Strange Bodies is very physical, quite brutal in places, like Shakespeare’s more vicious moments when the fine words slip away to make room for flinching realism, but it’s also very funny in places, and not in a literary-slap-on-the-thigh in-joke way.

If Strange Bodies sounds heavy going, it’s not, it’s an intelligent, gripping, multi-layered page-turner that is both a great yarn and a love letter to literature, an ode to words and their power and beauty.

by Suzanne Elliott