SECTION 11 BY EMILY ST.JOHN MANDEL - Reviewed by John Klassen (Book Review)

 

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John Klassen

 

Emily St.John Mandel

Mandel (1979-) is a Canadian writer, born in Comox, now living in New York City. She has published five novels. Station 11 was her fourth, and best known novel; it was nominated for a number of prizes and won two. Her latest novel, The Glass Hotel, was shortlisted for the Giller in 2020.

Station 11

The narrative spark of the novel is timely: a viral pandemic wipes out most of the world’s population in no time: catch the virus and you are dead in two days. The spread of the disease is global, rapid, unchecked and uncheckable. Economies and societies quickly unravel. Life becomes constant conflict in a struggle for survival. The superficiality of the modern world is highlighted through memories of what people once thought was important in life. Mandel skilfully manipulates the lives of a number of characters, moving back and forth between the pre- and post-pandemic worlds. The latter principally around the members of a travelling group that performs Shakespeare with musical support. The lives of a number of characters crisscross each other, from their pre- and post existences, usually without being aware of the antecedents. The book was written in 2014, and is eerily prescient about the actions, fears and reactions that we see with COVID.

I found the novel strangely unsettling in its depiction of how easily our vaunted modern world of electricity, transportation, potable water from a tap, food from grocery stores, communications, antibiotics, order, sense of future: all could disappear in a heartbeat, and we could become one of the millions of species that have become extinct, or live in small enclaves where every stranger is feared and where cultish obsessions can take root because people look for ‘meaning’ and ‘reasons’ and think they can pray their way to deliverance, too often at the expense of the lives and rights of others.

The novel ends on a hopeful note, or rather, a few hopeful signs, without veering into simplistic resolutions. A realistic, sobering, well-plotted, and well-written novel.