Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Post-apocalyptic / Standalone
“An incomplete list:
No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit green from below. No more ball games played out under floodlights. No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights. No more trains running under the surface of cities on the dazzling power of the electric third rail. No more cities. No more films, except rarely, except with a generator drowning out half the dialogue, and only then for the first little while until the fuel for the generators ran out, because automobile gas goes stale after two or three years.”
Actor Arthur Leander dies onstage during a production of King Lear; hours later, an epidemic of Georgian flu begins killing people and eventually wipes out most of humanity. In Station Eleven, we learn about life of Leander, and about those people whose lives intersected with his, both pre- and post-apocalypse. In particular, Mandel focuses on Leander’s first wife, Miranda, who spends years of her life perfecting her comic “Station Eleven”, as well as Kirsten, a child actor who witnessed his death and whose most treasured possession in the apocalypse is Miranda’s comic.
This is a haunting and incredibly moving narrative, and is one of my favourite reads in recent memory. Station Eleven is an exploration of the things we use to mark or measure our lives; all the mundane and strange, superficial and profound things that we derive joy and meaning from. It’s an introspective take on a genre that is often grim and action-packed. This is not the exciting tale of survival in post-apocalyptic times, but a mournful and lyrical elegy for what has been lost.
Mandel focuses on a number of seemingly disparate characters pre- and post-apocalypse, but as readers we see the threads that connect them to each other, even when the characters themselves do not. There are a lot of post-apocalyptic books out there, and a lot of them brutal: people are torn apart by zombies, bandits, monsters. Station Eleven is not brutal, but it drives home the senselessness of the post-apocalyptic world. For example, one incidental character perishes from stepping on a nail – the sort of totally unremarkable, ignoble thing that becomes deadly in a world without tetanus vaccines or advanced medical care.
The way that all these things we take for granted every day – tea, magazines, comic books – become cherished treasures in post-apocalyptic life really impacted me upon finishing the book. I loved having young Kirsten as a main protagonist. Since she was a child at the time the flu struck, she can remember the past only vaguely, and is always unsure whether her memories are real or constructed. Things we hardly take notice of in our lives become artifacts of a lost existence for her, a way of trying to create and fill in memories that she doesn’t have and never will.
Kirsten is part of the Traveling Symphony, a band of performers who cobble together plays and musical performances and travel from place to place to perform for other survivors. While she is interested in salvaging physical objects from the past, Kirsten’s profession is a reminder of the intangible artifacts that persist in spite of the loss and destruction. Kirsten’s life is spent sharing art and music and stories, and these are the things that keep her going (like her obsession with the Station Eleven comics, or her Star Trek Voyager inspired motto: “Survival is insufficient”). In that way, in spite of the book’s darker elements, there is a lot of optimism.
Though I did become attached to Kirsten in particular—as you can probably tell by my focus on her in this review—Station Eleven is not really driven by the characters or plot, but by the beauty of the prose. My desire to keep reading was not motivated by wanting to find out what happens next, or getting to know the characters better, but by how immersed and in love with the narrative style I was. It’s slow moving in a purposeful way; full of waiting, wandering, metaphors, impressions and uncertain memories that all combine really elegantly. In short, I loved every word of this beautiful, unhurried book.
If you like _______, you should read Station Eleven:
- post-apocalyptic stories with a balance of grim and hopeful content
- beautiful, poetic prose
- exceptionally well-crafted literature
Not recommended for people who are looking for:
- an emphasis on action or dialogue
- strong fantasy/sci-fi elements