Sunday, 9 November 2014

Review of The Visitors by Rebecca Mascull

The use of first person to express the thoughts and challenges that Adeliza Golding faces as a deaf and blind child in the 1880s hooked my attention from the start.

'I am born breech and nearly kill Mother.'

The language creates a sense of disconnection between Adeliza and those who care for her. While she is a much wanted baby, the afflictions Adeliza develops shortly after birth become too much for her mother, who retires to her bedroom. 

The scenes where Adeliza discovers the world around her purely through scent and touch are vividly drawn and evocative. Mascull encourages empathy for Adeliza's challenging condition the more others can't cope with the child's temper tantrums, which regularly occur out of sheer frustration. The nanny and the household staff have little patience with the child and Adeliza's father fears for her. Then there are the Visitors, whose shadowy presence is there every time Adeliza opens her sightless eyes. I've known who they were going to be ever since I read the synopsis during the cover reveal, and I was genuinely moved by how Mascull decided to interpret them within the novel.

Adeliza's father is a landowner and each year labourers join the farm to pick the hops. Curious about these strangers Adeliza is keen to meet them but has been told not to leave the house as they may feel awkward around her mannerisms. Then one day Adeliza has had enough and breaks free of the household. She is running wild when a hand reaches out to her, a gentle and patient hand that takes one of her own and gently begins to draw patterns on her palm. 

I'm not going to reveal anymore as I want you to discover Adeliza's world as she discovers ours. This wonderful novel explores the prejudices that the deaf and blind face, and how something that is unknown or unusual can lead to ignorance from others, sometimes from fear but often from a lack of patience to stop and listen. This is reflected through friendship, first love and the brutal horrors of the Boer war. The title of the novel is inspired, as everyone within it is a visitor in one way or another. 

Adeliza also has a special gift. As this pearl of a child shucks the shell that traps her in a world of darkness and silence, she learns to be the light in the dark for many others. The Visitors is a minimum three hanky read, a heart-warming story of friendship, hope, forgiveness and the joy to be found in letting go of whatever holds you back.

I won my copy of The Visitors in a Twitter competition run by Rebecca Mascull. Thank you Rebecca, I couldn't put your novel down once I'd started it!

Published by Hodder.

Follow the author on Twitter: @rebeccamascull

Review of A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

A Brief History of Seven Killings imagines the circumstances leading up to and beyond

the attempted assassination of reggae singer Bob Marley in December 1976, two days before he was due to perform at the free Smile Jamaica concert in Kingston to ease political tensions in the lead up to the general election. Guns and drugs were being pumped into the country and life expectancy in the brutal Kingston ghettos was low. In an interview in the New York Times, James warns readers not to read the book as a literal history of the times because he is being a 'trickster', and indeed he is. James was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1970 and grew up hearing about the rumours that surrounded the event he is writing about. A Brief History of Seven Killings is a remarkable feat of epic proportions, imagination and skill.
 

Marley is a mythical figure within these pages, someone who was seen to offer hope to the people before he was forced to leave Jamaica after the shooting. In this fictional account, Marley is caught between the Jamaican gang wars over the People's National Party (PNP) and the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP). For some characters, Marley achieves a God like status, which inevitably marks him out as a target to those who view his rising popularity as a threat. 

While Marley is the anchor for this tale, he is not the main focus. Marley is referred to as the Singer throughout to create a sense of distance, enabling the author to move the real focus of the novel to the story of Jamaica's political upheaval from the 70s through to the early 90s, as told from multiple perspectives of the people on the streets: from the drug dealers to the Dons who manoeuvre and manipulate to control the ghetto districts in Kingston (the vivid descriptions of life in the Eight Lanes ruled by Shotta Sherif reminded me of the movie Gangs of New York), to an American journalist who's sniffing around in search of the truth, to a young boy called Bam-Bam whose mind is distorted by drugs and the memory of his parents' violent demise, to mothers, sons, fathers, daughters, murderers, ghosts, the CIA and many, many others. There's a useful list of the cast of characters at the beginning of the novel which I recommend you read before you start. Real life figures, from politicians to rock stars, are also seamlessly blended into the narrative adding to the sense of authenticity. The more you read, the more you'll appreciate Bob Marley's lyrics and why he rapidly rose to prominence.

The depiction of violence throughout is vicious and sickening. There were times when I had to close the novel for a while because I couldn't take any more, but the exceptional writing always drew me back. The novel is packed with linguistic gymnastics as James switches effortlessly from Jamaican patois, which varies according to the district, to American dialects. Conversations have the sharp, quick fire banter of a Quentin Tarantino movie script and you'll need to pay attention to the convoluted subtext, as it's like reading a verbal game of cards where each gambler thinks he holds the best hand. At other times the writing has a poetic beauty and delivers a powerfully thoughtful punch. I was in awe of the many different writing techniques James embraced to ensure that each character's voice retained its individuality. One 'ghost' describes the scenes leading up to his murder in a stream of consciousness that ratchets up the tension until you, the reader, are left gasping for air just as he was as his lungs expired.

There's only one main female character, Nina Burgess, who continues to appear in different guises throughout the novel over the next few decades, as the drugs culture in Kingston moves to Miami and New York. Nina's story examines the oppression and danger of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, especially if you are a woman. There's an horrific scene where she's been picked up by the Kingston police for being out in a dodgy area after curfew. They offer to take her home and then miss the turning to her house. You can sense the tension in that car, hear the tyres gripping the road and smell the testosterone of anticipation leaking from the men as the beams of the headlights lead Nina away into the dark. You will feel sick with fear for her, but Nina's not a passive victim, she isn't going down without a fight.

Not every character is fully developed, some are just passing through, there to reflect on the grinding poverty, the drugs and gun culture that can drive some people over the edge into a pit of hopelessness where violence numbs the senses. The Dons create their own codes of behaviour which are as cruel and twisted as those who seek to suppress the downtrodden with the laws of the land, and those who have vested interests. 

Overall, A Brief History of Seven Killings is a fascinating fictional interpretation of Jamaica's recent volatile history. The last line in the novel is like a bullet to the heart, as you appreciate just how much has to be given up in order to survive. But be warned, you'll need a strong stomach for the extreme violence, high tolerance for swearing in various dialects and a good memory to read this 669 page epic. If you have those three capabilities A Brief History of Seven Killings is well worth the investment of your time. 

You can read an extract from the novel here.

Marlon James has also selected soundtracks for the novel here.

Follow the author on Twitter: @MarlonJames5

Published by Oneworld publications

With thanks to Oneworld for the review copy, I was so impressed by James's evocative skill as a writer I bought The Book of Night Women.




Friday, 31 October 2014

The Haunting by PL McIlroy

Her eyes snap open. Was she awake or still asleep? Her nights are so disturbed that sometimes she cannot tell, sometimes reality merges with a nightmare she would rather forget. Sitting up slowly she adjusts the pile of pillows behind her back, then leans against them to observe her surroundings. Her gaze flits from the comfortable armchair by the window to the bookshelves on the right, before falling on the blank screen of the TV in the far corner, which looms in the half light from the full moon filtering through the thin curtains of the studio flat. Nothing lurks inside the room, yet she still feels uneasy. 

Then she spots it, the red glow in the cassette recorder at the foot of her bed, a light that didn't exist in real life. She'd bought the machine to help her rest. The only way she could sleep at night was by drifting off to the sound of another's voice, the comforting tone of the meditation tape reminding her that she wasn't alone.

She waits.

Four, sharp, blackened claws appear above the top of the cassette enclosure, pushing it open, and a tiny, horned, blood-red form emerges, its long tail twitching. She'd been expecting this visitor for some time but she hadn't expected the Devil to be so small. Maybe his size was a reflection her sins? She didn't know, all she knew was that this would be the last visit. Watching the creature through half closed lids she suppresses the urge to laugh, as her devilish companion withdraws a wooden spear from the cassette deck with three sharp prongs on the end. Sometimes she despairs at the predictability of the unexpected. Only He would send the Devil armed with a Trident. 

She unconsciously rubs the two nubs of hard skin on her chest just above her heart as she waits for the creature to make its next move. The Devil's tiny hooves barely leave an indentation as he clambers up the length of her quilt covered limbs, until he arrives, legs akimbo, on her chest, his arrogant little face burning with rage. 

Looking down at her miniature tormentor from a protective cloud of pillows, she is reminded of Him again, the man she had once loved. She used to wonder what she had done to deserve such loathing, why nothing she did or said was good enough. It had almost taken her too long to accept that there was nothing she could do to make Him love her, that something beyond her had poisoned His mind.

The fiery creature begins to mutter familiar curses and she finds herself tuning out. The steady rise and fall of her chest rejecting the blows as the little Devil tries to pierce the scars above her heart with the spear again and again, just as He had with the meat fork, but to no avail. The harder he tries the whiter her scars glow, until they shimmer with a purity that pierces and the creature is forced to turn away, his red skin peeling back to reveal the dark, empty, shell beneath. It saddened her to see such potential die, just as it had before, but she was impervious now, didn't He know that? Nothing would ever hurt her again. Not even the horrors of the past that haunted her dreams.

The Broadway Book Club choice for November is The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

We're coming up to the final book club meeting of the year in November and this month's choice is The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. 

Publisher synopsis: In a dusty post-war summer in rural Warwickshire, a doctor is called to a patient at lonely Hundreds Hall. Home to the Ayres family for over two centuries, the Georgian house, once grand and handsome, is now in decline, its masonry crumbling, its gardens choked with weeds, its owners - mother, son and daughter - struggling to keep pace with changing society. But are the Ayreses haunted by something more sinister than a dying way of life? Little does Dr Faraday know how closely, and how terrifyingly, their story is about to become entwined with his.

Published by Virago.

The next Broadway Book Club meeting to discuss the book will be on Thursday 27 November at 7pm in the Broadway Cinema, Nottingham.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Review of The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy is the perfect companion novel to Joyce's first novel - The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. 

In the first novel, as Harold walks hundreds of miles to see Queenie before she dies, he encounters the kindness of strangers and gradually realises that many painful secrets lie behind the facades of the people he meets, secrets that have held them back from truly living their lives. Harold comes to terms with the secrets in his own past the nearer he comes to Queenie and is able to find happiness once more.

Queenie's journey is similar, except that she is coming to terms with the unrequited love she felt for Harold and the heartbreak of taking on a responsibility that didn't belong to her. Queenie is tormented by the idea that she has failed the one person she loves. This beautifully nuanced novel is all about letting go of the misplaced guilt that can haunt you to your grave in order to leave the world peacefully.  

As Harold walks, Queenie decides to write down her memories of him, starting with the first moment they met over twenty years ago. Her voice is direct and lively, masking a more sensitive soul. Queenie has not encountered much kindness until she meets Harold and becomes fascinated by his gentle, old fashioned charm. Then circumstances beyond Queenie's control throw them together on a daily basis, which leads to her becoming more involved in Harold's family life than she anticipated.

Moments of raw emotional pain from the past are balanced against comical scenes in Queenie's hospice, which is full of believable and engaging characters. When you read a Rachel Joyce novel you are in safe hands, for she is a truly exceptional writer whose simple perceptive prose resonates on a much deeper level. The gentle grace of Joyce's writing provoked a powerful sense of empathy in me. I wept for Queenie, for the guilt she carried and the touching ending to her life. This is a beautiful, beautiful novel, I hope it touches your heart as much as it did mine.



With thanks to Alison Barrow for the review copy.
Published by Doubleday
Twitter: @QueenieHennessy #QueenieHennessy 
Find out more about the author Rachel Joyce




Sunday, 5 October 2014

Review of The Undertaker's Daughter by Kate Mayfield

It was impossible to put Mayfield's memoir down once I'd started it. In 1959, Mayfield's father decided to move his family to a small town called Jubilee in rural Kentucky and become an undertaker. 


Mayfield's dad is full of teasing wit and charm yet there's a sense of him keeping everyone at arm's length. Determined to know her father better, Mayfield expresses interest in learning more about his job as an undertaker, regularly asking questions despite often feeling repelled by the processes involved. She's endlessly fascinated by her father's ability to switch on his professional persona seconds after receiving a call, no matter what he had been doing beforehand; whether gambling with friends, having a disagreement with his wife or simply enjoying time with his family.

The memoir is brimming with memorable characters; from the independent Miss Agnes who has a gift for marketing, to Belle the family's help. Mayfield's insatiable curiosity about other lives leads her to question racial discrimination and to challenge convention when she falls in love for the first time. Meanwhile, Mayfield's older sister has issues that the family hasn't addressed, her father has secrets and her mother has to make some hard choices to keep the family together. 

I loved the rhythm of the language which evoked the scents, sights and sounds of the time. The history of each life and death is is explored with care, and each chapter ends on a thought-provoking note. The Undertaker's Daughter is a beautiful memoir. At times it is tender, poignant and often humorous, and at others there's a genuine sense of danger and uncertainty. There are many life lessons to be learned in this funeral home, where compassion and kindness marks the end of each life.



Published by Gallery Books
With thanks for the review copy
Find out more about the author here.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Is Jane Eyre passive or strong?

I've just watched The Secret Life of Books, BBC4, on iPlayer. The topic was Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë and whether or not your perception of a classic novel will change when reading a childhood favourite again as an adult. The reviewer on the show initially interpreted Jane's character as weak. We discussed Jane Eyre at my book club last week, while we were reviewing Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. I've always said that anyone who believes Jane Eyre is a passive, drippy romantic who swoons at Rochester's every word may want to rethink that perception.


 

I've known since I was nine that Jane was fighting to be treated as an equal throughout the novel, it's one of the reasons I wanted the book so badly. I entered a challenge at school on the agreement that I'd be given my own copy by my then step-dad if I passed (see photo above).

The one thing Jane isn't is passive. Jane stands up to her cruel aunt as a child after being bullied by her cousin. She learns the rules of the game to survive the correctional facility known as Lowood School after her first friend, Helen, dies. As a young adult, Jane successfully applies for the position of Governess and leaves the school for the first time. That alone was a courageous thing for a young woman to do, especially for one who feels she's all alone in the world.

When the wealthy, reserved Rochester meets Jane, he knows he's met his intellectual equal. This is a problem because of the perception of class and status in society in the 1800s. Jane knows 'society' perceives Blanche Ingram as the right match for Rochester, and he knows he'll be bored to death if he does marry Blanche. Plus there is the little problem of his first wife that no one knows about, who's locked up in the attic due to her mental health issues. 

Rochester eventually proposes to Jane, and even then she asks him if he's marrying her for the right reasons, because she knows how strong they'll have to be as a couple to go against the rules of society. He is, he just neglects to mention that he's not actually free to marry her. The wedding day arrives, the wife in the attic is unveiled and Jane refuses the alternative position of mistress. 

Jane bolts and suffers a breakdown, which is perfectly understandable considering the size of Rochester's lie and the fact that this was the first time since her friendship with Helen that she's ever felt loved. Jane grieves, recovers and turns down the world's least romantic proposal from her rescuer, the ever practical St.John Rivers, who thinks she'd make a great missionary's wife (a respectable position in society which many girls would have given their right arm for. Security and status people, it counted for a lot in those days). 

Then Jane receives an unexpected windfall and returns to Rochester on her own terms. But he is no longer a man of great fortune with a big house. Rochester has been blinded in a fire caused by his now deceased first wife and his fortunes have taken a turn for the worse. Does Jane bolt again? No, she marries him, not because he needs her but because she loves him, and she has come to terms with what has gone before from a place of understanding. Jane isn't passive, she's strong. 

It's worth catching the programme on iPlayer to see whether or not you agree with the passive or strong camp when it comes to assessing Jane's character. 

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Review of Here Are The Young Men by Rob Doyle

Here Are The Young Men by Rob Doyle is a riveting debut that gives voice to the dispossessed Irish male teenager. This is one of the most gripping stories I've read all year, as I was hurled into the frustrated mindset of  four young men: Matthew, Rez, Cocker and Kearney. Doyle has a cracking ear for dialect and the authenticity of each voice leaps off the page. 

This is powerful writing as Doyle explores the fears and hopes of these four teenagers who live in Dublin and have just finished the Leaving Certificate at school. Adult life holds no appeal to them. They're into drink, drugs and computer games, rather than finding work and settling down. They're also dealing with the complexities of romance and sexual desire. They're doing everything they can to avoid responsibility and are hitting the self-destruct button hard.

Doyle writes with a darkly comic sense of humour and a penetrative understanding of the teenage male psyche. His genius lies in exposing all four young men to the same toxic distractions and exploring the outcomes, which are entirely different in each case but brutally realistic. The novel poses questions about how far you can push the self-destruct button without losing an essential part of what it means to be human, and asks who has the power to decide your fate before ending with a mind-blowing conclusion.

Here Are The Young Men will put you through a wringer of emotions, it's an uncompromising and extraordinarily provocative debut. A must-read for fans of Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh and 4.a.m. by Nina de la Mer.

Published by Bloomsbury on 25 September 2014.
With thanks to Bloomsbury for the review copy.

Fine out more about Rob Doyle here.
Follow the author on twitter at @RobDoyle1

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Agatha Christie: A writing heritage to be proud of

I discovered there was an annual Agatha Christie Festival when I heard that Sophie Hannah was writing a new Poirot novel – The Monogram Murders - and that she would be appearing at the Festival in September. I booked a B & B, event and train tickets and off I went to Torre Abbey in Torquay on Friday 12 September.


The Abbey was the Festival venue and it is beautiful. It's worth spending a morning exploring all the interactive tools that share the fascinating history of the Abbey. Some events were held in the Ballroom and others were outside in the Spanish Barn, which is often hired for weddings. There was a Jazz band performing in the gardens outside not far from the Agatha Christie poisonous plant garden. There were guided tours with the Head Gardener if you wanted to learn about the plants that were used to murder the victims in Christie novels.

On Sunday I went to the All Things Vintage and Lovely Fair in the Abbey, which was basically a giant dressing up box. You could buy vintage clothes, pottery, books and jewellery. There were also lots of craft stalls. I had a go at stamping prints on a canvas bag and learned how to make flowers out of ribbons. I was sitting there stitching away when a lady came up to me and asked about the flower I was making because she thought it might match the silk beaded purple dress she had bought off one of the vintage stalls for the bargain price of £15. When she realised I was not the stall holder she took up my invitation to sit down and join me to make a ribbon flower. The finished article was a perfect match for her dress (see mine below right).

In the afternoon I went off to the Spanish Barn to listen to Sonia Beck and Adrian Metcalfe read two short stories from the Agatha Christie collection: The Companion and The Mystery of the Plymouth Express. Both Sonia and Adrian are part of The Agatha Christie Theatre Company and they were fantastic as they brought every character in the stories vividly to life. I could have sat there and happily listened to them read for a lot longer. The event was a bargain at £5.  

Later that day I returned to the Spanish Barn to learn all about how Sophie Hannah became the first author to be given the Christie families blessing to write a new Poirot novel. The Barn was absolutely packed and there was a real sense of warmth throughout the event, as Hannah explained the series of happy coincidences that led up to writing The Monogram Murders. Hannah had a great idea for a new Poirot novel just as the Christie family were considering whether or not to invite an author to write one. The grandson of Agatha Christie, Mathew Prichard, said that it was really important that Hannah was a huge fan of his grandmother’s work. Apparently, Hannah did a Dragon’s Den style pitch of her idea to the Christie family to win their backing.

Hannah reassured everyone that she hadn’t attempted to write The Monogram Murders in the style of Agatha Christie, as each author’s writing style is as unique as a fingerprint. Having read the novel this weekend I can attest to that. What Hannah has done is create a new relationship for the character of Poirot to bounce off in the form of Inspector Catchpole, who is more like Captain Hastings. Throughout the novel Poirot teaches Catchpole (and the reader) how to read between the lines to come to the truth. The novel features a cracking plot and captures the authentic feel of an Agatha Christie while retaining the uniqueness of Hannah’s fingerprint. I really loved it and I hope there are plans for a second novel because I’d really like to see how the character of Catchpole develops around Hannah’s fantastic interpretation of Poirot.

The next day I was back at the Abbey for the Kate Summerscale event in The Ballroom. Within minutes everyone was taken back to the 1860s as the origins of investigative policing were laid out through the story of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. This was a fascinating talk as Summerscale described how she found out about the true story of Mr Whicher. She originally wanted to write it as an autobiography but there wasn’t enough source material to do it, so she decided to tell his story in the form of a novel. It took 18 months of research before she sat down to start to write and the research continued for the next 18 months as the story came together. Since then Summerscale’s novel has been a massive success and has been turned into a TV series. Summerscale says she likes Paddy Considine’s portrayal of Mr Whicher (as do I). Apparently she has seen an image of the real Mr Whicher and he looks more like David Jason!

I headed to the Mystery Film Event With Dr John Curran in the Spanish Barn later that evening. Dr. Curran was highly entertaining as he explained that we would be listening to an old radio performance of Witness for the Prosecution first. This turned out to be equally entertaining, not least due to the dodgy foreign accents of said Witness. Afterwards, we watched a film of Lord Edgware Dies which was made in 1934. It was one of those films that was so bad it was great entertainment. Austin Trevor was terrible as Poirot, but not as bad as Richard Cooper as Hastings. Cooper’s ‘acting’ was so wooden you felt embarrassed for him! According to www.imbd.com this movie was meant to be the start of a series but failed to take off due to a lack of box office success. I don’t think any of us were surprised by this fact but watching the movie did lead to an entertaining discussion afterwards. It all made us appreciate just how marvellous David Suchet has been in the role of Poirot.

On Tuesday 16 September, I attended the International panel Event with Dr. John Curran, Ragnar Jonasson, Christie collectors and enthusiasts. This was one of the most fascinating panels, especially when Dr Curran asked everyone in the room whether or not they had spoken of their love of Agatha Christie novels with pride or kept it to themselves. This question arose when one panel member said that they had kept his passion a secret because they wanted to fit in at school. They were not alone in this as other people discussed whether or not they had been open about their love of Agatha Christie as young teenagers, or even in the present day. This drove me to ask the same question on twitter and that generated a huge chain of responses reflecting similar views to the answers during the panel. My twitter followers were mainly loud and proud about reading Agatha Christie novels (a huge thank you to everyone who did respond to that tweet).

Personally, I think that the Agatha Christie legacy is so great that no one should keep their admiration hidden. She is an author who is regularly mentioned when writers are questioned about the origins of their passion for crime writing during other festivals I’ve attended around the country. One American panellist said that an Agatha Christie novel had even been listed on the school curriculum one year. This sparked off another round of responses where people from Brazil, Germany and Malaysia said they had read the novels as an introduction to the grammatical structure of the English language, which was also confirmed by one of my twitter followers who has assigned the novels to their students in the past.

I was in the mood for Black Coffee at the Princess Theatre in Torquay on Wednesday 17 September. This new production of the play by Agatha Christie features a superb cast, including Jason Durr (Heartbeat) as Hercule Poirot. This is a cracking production that alternates between gentle humour and a dark atmosphere of murderous intent. Durr’s Poirot captures the mannerisms of the well known character in the novel perfectly, alternating between his despair at the English habits to snappy asides that indicate he knows when someone is lying to him. The play is going on tour and is well worth catching, log on to www.kenwright.com to find out more.

I didn’t attend any of the Fringe events although they did look like a lot of fun. You could attend murder mystery parties held in a variety of venues, including a train. There were also bus tours to Greenway, Agatha Christie’s holiday home in Torquay, which you can also go and stay in (thanks to Sophie Hannah for sharing that little gem).

Overall, I really enjoyed my few days in Torquay at the Agatha Christie Festival and would recommend the experience to anyone who loves the books or wants to find out more about one of England’s most celebrated crime writers. I stayed in Linden House, which is two minutes walk from Torre Abbey and about 20 minutes walk from the town centre. I had the Garden Room which was fabulous and featured a private patio area overlooking the garden. The breakfasts were fantastic with plenty of choice and freshly cooked. Linden House deserves all the accolades it has received on Trip Advisor to date, I highly recommend it if you fancy a luxury break. I also enjoyed exploring Torquay, If you love homemade cakes, you'll be in heaven here and there are restaurants to cater to every taste. The town has a great transport network and there are plenty of interesting places to explore around this part of the world, from Brixham to Dartmouth.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Review of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

The opening scene is set at the beginning of act 4 of King Lear at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto. Arthur Leander plays the King who has lost everything, just as he loses his own life to a heart attack while on stage. From this moment on Arthur's story is entwined with Jeevan Chaudhary - a paramedic in the audience who tries to save him, and Kirsten Raymonde, who is one of the young actors playing Cordelia as a child.

As Jeevan leaves the theatre he realises that the person he thought he could count on hasn't waited for him. He takes a call from a friend informing him of the rapid onset of the Georgia Flu and how fast it can kill, and decides to hole up with the only person he can count on to ride out the worst of the pandemic.

The Georgia Flu kills within hours. Within a few weeks the world population is severely decimated, only 1% survives. In some ways Arthur's entire life follows that of King Lear's. Arthur had three wives, Lear had three daughters. The more successful Arthur is, the more he is drawn to the superficial, just as Lear is flattered by his two eldest daughters' sycophantic declarations of love. As Arthur's colleagues discuss his final moments on stage, they speak of him not as someone they knew well but as a celebrity, someone who was beyond their reach on pedestal of success, not quite real and fairly unknown to them on a personal level.

At the end of each discussion, Mandel drops in how long it takes each speaker to die of the Georgia Flu, emphasising how fragile life is, how temporary, no matter who you are. That life is but a moment in time is also acknowledged by Arthur later in the novel. As his back story is revealed, Arthur, like Lear, decides to make choices that will affect the lives of those around him, it's only towards the end of his life that Arthur awakens to the possibilities of the other choices that had been available to him.

Arthur's first wife, Miranda Carroll, is in Malaysia when she accepts a call from Arthur's best friend, Clark, who informs her of her ex-husband's death. Whenever life becomes difficult Miranda takes comfort in drawing on her life experiences to express what is missing from it. She is woman who sees everything, just like Cordelia in King Lear. 

These revealing chapters are followed by one with short punchy sentences detailing what no longer exists in the world as the Georgia Flu pandemic takes hold. Each line on that incomplete list forms a breakdown of our current existence and it packs an emotionally powerful punch.

The novel moves on to 20 years after the end of air travel. We rejoin Kirsten who is now a member of The Travelling Symphony, who visit small settlements of survivors across the country to give live performances. Those who survived the Flu pandemic take comfort in the familiarity of Shakespeare and classical music. The route the Symphony travels can be dangerous. Towns change depending on who is in charge in this new world order, where there are no laws and everything can be reinterpreted. 

Kirsten was eight when she joined the Symphony, while the memory of her parent's faces has faded she can still remember Arthur Leander, the man who gave her the comics featuring Station Eleven. The world of Station Eleven resides in a perpetual twilight, its people desperate to see the sun once more. In Kirsten's world it's the brilliance of technology that people miss: the internet, the Cloud, the TV. The ability to log on to other lives and to interact via social media. It's easier for the young ones and those who don't remember much of life before the Flu pandemic, but for those who do, coming across a piece of technology like a computer or TV opens a floodgate of memories of human creativity and imagination. There are discussions around whether or not it's worth sharing the memories of the past with the next generation who have no concept of what has gone before and are not likely to see it again in their lifetime.

The Travelling Symphony agree that if they are split up for any reason they should reconvene at the Museum of Civilisation, which is rumoured to be in the Severn City Airport. While out on the road they come upon news of a Prophet and what they hear is not good, survival soon becomes the only thing that matters. 
       
Kirsten's motto 'Survival is insufficient', taken from an episode of Star Trek and tattooed on her arm, is explored through all the major characters both before and after the Georgia Flu pandemic. There are moments in the novel that will make you pause and reflect on the world as it is today, the wonder and magic of human creation as well as the natural world. Mandel's novel remarks on the impact of science and art on life: what makes humanity great and what can make it thoughtless, cruel and unreasonable. There are pockets of tenderness and poignancy that will make you weep with their beauty; snapshots of a life, capturing a moment in time on which the next strand of the intricate plot pivots. When I first finished reading this novel I had to sit still with it for a while in appreciation, then I turned back to the beginning and read it again. The writing is extraordinary: enriching and completely unforgettable.



Published by Picador