Emily St. John Mandel
Publishing year: 2014
Genre: science fiction (post apocalyptic)
One shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but once upon a time, when browsing the Waterstones, that was exactly what I did. The blurb on the back intrigued me even more; so yes, a certain degree of superficiality led me to purchase my favourite read this year (thus far, anyway). Station Eleven is hardly the first post apocalyptic type of fiction I’ve consumed, but I loved the way St. John Mandel wove her story.
While performing the role of his lifetime, the titular character of Shakespeare’s King Lear, actor Arthur Leander dies on stage from a heart attack. Mere hours later, the Georgia Flu begins wiping out most of humanity. Within a week, 99,99% of humanity is dead and civilization has collapsed. In a nonlinear fashion, Station Eleven narrates the perspectives of multiple characters across time — the past leading up to the outbreak, the present immediately following it, and the future twenty years later. All of these characters are connected in some way by the arts: Shakespeare, by the titular comic Station Eleven, and by Arthur Leander.
The post apocalyptic world St. John Mandel paints is realistic and interesting. Small communities of survivors have sprung up from what remains of humanity. Though there is mention of violence and the dangers, Station Eleven is not about survival and the harsh brutality that would come with a collapsed society. “survival is insufficient”, a Star Trek quote that is the mantra of the Travelling Symphony one of the main characters is part of, conveys the novel’s themes. Station Eleven is most certainly a post apocalyptic novel, but it’s also more than that. In portraying the yearning for what is lost, Mandel underlines what we take for granted in a time of plenty. It’s also about art and its capability of surviving the passing of time and influencing people. It’s about human connections, and the small things that facilitate these connections.
This message could not have been conveyed without Mandel’s amazing portrayal of the novel’s characters. Most of them are well-developed and each deal with their problems in their own way. As a reader, you experience these characters’ grief and regret, their yearning for what they have lost, and their attempts to preserve what they have left. All of this is wrapped up in beautiful and elegant prose that not only captures the desolation and melancholy prevalent throughout the setting, but does a great job of conveying the struggles and thoughts of the characters.
Nonetheless, some people might get the feeling that the connections between the characters are too defined by coincidences. Therefore, Station Eleven demands a small suspension of disbelief. Moreover, one of the characters who ends up as the source of conflict and tension in the post-collapse storyline feels underdeveloped. This individual seemed to be just there for the sake of conflict, and I feel that more could have been done with this character. Finally, you should be warned that the novel does not end with a bang. Though I wouldn’t call the ending unsatisfying, it more or less just fizzles out. For anyone expecting some kind of epic finale, this might be a little disappointing.
Still, the interesting setting, the rounded characters, and its layered narrative made for a thought-provoking read that was well worth my time. For better or for worse, Station Eleven made me want more.