Women on the edge: 3 new books about death and survival

(Clockwise from left) Maddie Mortimer, Emily St John Mandel and Karolina Ramqvist. PHOTOS: BEN MANKIN, SARAH SHATZ, JASMINE STORCH

SINGAPORE - "Survival is insufficient," goes the motto of a travelling theatre company in Emily St John Mandel's post-apocalyptic novel Station Eleven (2014).

Here are three new books about death and survival, from Mandel's latest lockdown novel to Maddie Mortimer's debut about a cancer victim's last days.

Holding on to art in the end-times

Canadian author Emily St John Mandel's post-apocalyptic pandemic novel Station Eleven, which was published in 2014 and found renewed fame amid the Covid-19 outbreak, has a Singapore connection that most are not aware of.

It was inspired by a 2009 Daily Mail article about a ghost fleet of ships about 80km east of Singapore's harbour, left adrift by the recession. At night, the blaze of their lights was visible from fishing villages along Malaysia's coast.

In Station Eleven, shipping executive Miranda Carroll travels to Malaysia to tackle the ghost fleet issue and is stranded there when a pandemic called the Georgia Flu breaks out, killing most of the world's population.

Two years into Covid-19, pandemic novels may seem a dime a dozen. But Mandel's latest, uniquely, is about the author of a pandemic novel living through a pandemic.

In Sea Of Tranquility, which she wrote during lockdown, an author called Olive Llewellyn goes on a publicity tour for her pandemic novel, unaware that a devastating outbreak is about to occur.

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A luminous journey through time

PHOTO: SARAH SHATZ, KNOPF

"We knew it was coming, but we behaved inconsistently," goes a line in Sea Of Tranquility. "We were still thinking in terms of getting work done. The most shocking thing in retrospect was the degree to which all of us completely missed the point."

Reading about a pandemic when the real world is still recovering from one would have been heavy going, were it not for the unerring grace of Mandel's prose.

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Cancer story brims with life

Maddie Mortimer's Maps Of Our Spectacular Bodies inspires a sense of curiosity and wonder.
PHOTOS: BEN MANKIN, PICADOR

It is a cruel irony of life that one tends to feel most alive when death is close by.

Maps Of Our Spectacular Bodies, British author Maddie Mortimer's dazzling debut novel about a woman with breast cancer, is a life-affirming read - all the more so because of its proximity to death.

Tripping the light fantastic across time periods and perspectives, it is told through the prism of protagonist Lia. Her thoughts and interactions with her husband, ex-lover, young daughter, mother and friend are all placed under the microscope.

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The pain that women bear

PHOTOS: JASMINE STORCH, BONNIER BOOKS

In Swedish writer Karolina Ramqvist's sixth novel, young 16th-century French noblewoman Marguerite de la Rocque is left to a scheming guardian and taken on an uncertain voyage across the seas.

To say more would spoil the story, the forward momentum of which relies so much on mystery, but it includes bear shooting and an illicit romance, and should be exciting and gripping in its own right.

It is a shame, then, that its impact is blunted by Ramqvist's telling, which chooses to abjure Marguerite as the obvious protagonist and instead foreground the author's own research process.

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