The very first thing I want to know is how does Emily pronounce her middle name? Does she say it as it looks, ‘saint john’, or does she use the English pronunciation ‘sinjin’?
I have no idea, or any good reason, why it has taken me so long to get around to reading this terrific story, except that it obviously takes a real life pandemic to push some books to the top of my TBR pile!
The title of the book comes from the name of a science fiction graphic novel being drawn and written by one of the characters before the pandemic kills off 99% of the world’s population. The author give two copies of her graphic novel to her ex-husband, an actor, who passes them onto his son (by another wife) and a young girl, Kirsten, who works with him in the theatre.
Dr. Eleven stands on dark rocks overlooking an indigo sea at twilight. Small boats move between islands, wind turbines spinning on the horizon.… A line of text across the bottom of the frame: I stood looking over my damaged home and tried to forget the sweetness of life on Earth.
Culture and art are at the centre of this pandemic story.
We begin with a real life death in a performance of King Lear, just hours and days before the world goes utterly pear-shaped with the ‘Georgian Flu’. The actor, Arthur Leander, becomes the pivot around which everything else happens. Two people who were there that night, survive the flu and several people connected to him, also live on.
Most of the action takes place twenty years in the future, with our various characters remembering the time before, and filling us in on Arthur’s backstory. Kirsten is now with a travelling band of musicians and actors called, The Travelling Symphony. Their motto, painted onto one of the vans is from Star Trek: Voyager, ‘Survival is insufficient‘, for surely life must be more than just the daily grind of survival, eating and sleeping. Shakespeare and Beethoven have the power to lift us up and remind us of our shared humanity. They can even bring beauty and hope into a post-apocalyptic world.
To survive is one thing; but to live is another. Mandel believes, or maybe hopes, that in a future world gone wrong that we will as a ‘people want what was best about the world,’ to continue on. This hope is what shines through in her story. And that’s what I responded to so strongly.
If one wants to be picky, you could say the ending was a bit soft. The mystery of the prophet wasn’t hard to work out and his comeuppance may have been anti-climatic, but who’s to say that the bad guys have to win in a post-apocalyptic world?
Some critics have complained that the end-of-the-world stuff was too nice as well, but perhaps Mandel is like me, in hoping that humanity would ultimately do better than that. Some initial carnage and violence, looting and lawlessness, sure, but eventually, isn’t it just possible that likeminded groups could come together to survive and remember and try to live a decent life in the company of others?
I’d like to think so.
“The king stood in the blue light, unmoored. This was act 4 of King Lear, a winter night at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto. Earlier in the evening, three little girls had played a clapping game onstage as the audience entered, childhood versions of Lear’s daughters, and now they’d returned as hallucinations in the mad scene.“
My Previous Plague/Pandemic Reads:
- The Plague | Albert Camus (fictional plague)
- How We Live Now | Bill Hayes (non-fiction Covid-19)
- The Stand | Stephen King (fictional bio-engineered flu virus)
- Moloka’i | Alan Brennert (leprosy)
- All Fall Down | Sally Nicholls (the black death) YA
- The Way We Fall | Megan Crewe (fictional flu virus) YA
- Hamnet | Maggie O’Farrell (the plague)
- Oryx and Crake | Margaret Atwood (fictional bio-engineered flu virus)
- Year of Wonders | Geraldine Brooks (Great Plague of London)
- The Pull of the Stars | Emma Donoghue (Spanish Flu)
- A Journal of the Plague Year | Daniel Defoe (Great Plague of London)
- Intimations | Zadie Smith (non-fiction Covid-19)
My Current Plague Reads:
- A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century | Barbara Tuchman (non-fiction The Black Death)
- Pale Horse, Pale Rider | Katherine Anne Porter (Spanish Flu)
- The Decameron Project: 29 Stories from the Pandemic | The New York Times (Covid-19)
- Winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award 2015
- Winner of the Toronto Book Award 2015
- Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2015