Emily St John Mandel
Picador, 10 September 2014
Hardback, 384 pages
I received a copy of this book through the Amazon Vine programme. Although I got a proof copy free to review, I liked it so much that I went out and bought a copy. Although the hardback comes with a little bit extra, this isn't something I'd normally do...
I really like it when an author messes with the template. In this case, the collapse of civilization: how does a representative cross section of humanity (well, Western, technological humanity) cope? This kind of thing is often the excuse for dog-eat-dog survivalist posturing; for showing off deep learning about how to service a generator or bootstrap agriculture; even for setting out theories about society or religion.
The master of that kind of thing was of course John Wyndham - indeed he was so good at it that, for all the datedness of his books, more recent attempts always seem to fall short. But Emily St. John Mandel takes this hoary old idea and.. kind of.. rotates it out of the page. So, while her flu-borne plague is credible, her aftermath compelling and its reality certainly gritty, we don't get a lot about exactly how people survive. Instead we get (for example) a beautifully told account of a bunch of travellers caught in an airport as things fail. They start as bored, stranded passengers. They emerges as survivors. How does this happen? What chnages does it cause in them? At what point do they stop following instructions, leave the lounge, and start poking around in the off-limits areas? How long does that take?
Perhaps the book has its flaws: it might be nice to know a little more about how people survive. But, frankly, you can work that stuff out for yourself if you really want to. what makes this story work is people - the marvellous characters who fill the book. It is, in the end, about people.
An excellent book which has been well praised but, for once, deserves the hype.
In other places, the book is reticent. We are told, for example, that eight year old Kirsten, who is on stage as a child actor when the crisis occurs, doesn't remember the first year travelling with her brother. It's implied that the memory was too awful for her: but Emily St John Mandel isn't interested in dwelling on that (no doubt dramatic, no doubt compelling) awfulness. Instead she shows what kind of person Kirsten has become, how resourceful and confident she is - but for Kirsten it's more important that she continues to act, with the "Travelling Symphony", that she searches for further installments of the comic book, Doctor Eleven, that she obsesses over the famous actors, Arthur Leander, who died that first night.
Though he doesn't survive in the new era, Leander's life frames and guides the story.Many of those we follow knew him, or were his family or associates. Some of them survive, some don't, but their paths continue to cross (in credible ways). St John Mandel uses this connectedness as a device to pan from character to character, back and forward in time, using (but not commenting) on the connectedness of the world - which is both a strength (most people don't collapse into savagery and violence but try to make lives amid the ruin) and a weakness (all those links are brittle).
Again, this genre is often cursory about the backstory, just telling you enough to make it plausible who's going to be the heroic leader, who the weak traitor. But more than half - I think - of this book takes place before the disaster. It's not just establishing life histories: it's part of the narrative, telling you about the survivors (and some of the non-survivors). Because in the end it's a story about real (fallible) people.