by Emily St. John Mandel, 2014
I have to admit it – I’m a sucker for a good post-apocalyptic/dystopian story. It’s unfortunate that those have become buzzwords for young adult literature. Don’t get me wrong, I love YA, but the popularity of this theme seems to have opened up a platform for mediocre writers to have their stories pushed on us simply because publishers have decided that apocalypses and dystopias sell. It’s also somewhat disheartening to see some readers refer to this as a “trend.” Writers have been imagining bleak futures for ages – crack open Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, The Handmaid’s Tale, Y the Last Man, or Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents to see what I mean. This did not start yesterday with The Hunger Games and Divergent. But that is neither here nor there, except to say that Station Eleven is a fantastic post-apocalyptic tale and should fear of trendy buzzwords keep you away, you will miss out greatly in passing this one by.
Station Eleven is told from three points of view and three points in time, all surrounding the worldwide catastrophe that is the Georgia Flu. We start at a production of King Lear in which acclaimed actor Arthur Leander dies. EMT trainee Jeevan Chaudhary rushes to his aid, unable to revive him. Kirsten Raymonde, a child onstage during Arthur’s death, survives the pandemic and in Year Twenty we find her wandering the Great Lakes region with her theater troupe, the Traveling Symphony. We read about the frightful days during the pandemic with Jeevan, as news stations sign off and cars litter packed highways, filled with the bodies of those who did not make it. We go into the past with Arthur and his many failings at love, his attempt to escape who he is and where he’s from. We catch up with Kirsten in a desolate and lonely country, haunted by the deeds she’s had to commit in her fight for survival. All three stories come together to converge on a single point in the future, a quest for hope.
It is fascinating to see how St. John Mandel strings these seemingly unconnected stories together. In the abandoned houses the Symphony encounters, Kirsten searches for anything she can possibly find about Arthur Leander, his death being one of her few pre-pandemic memories. She carries around with her two copies of a comic book – the titular “Station Eleven” – hoping to come across anyone who has more issues. It remains unknown to her how far Arthur’s influence reaches into this future and how the comic connects her to others who have survived. This is essentially what the novel is about – relationships and the invisible ways in which they are woven together.
If there’s one point about which I will criticize the book, it’s that the language can be a bit flowery at times and that can serve to distance the reader from the story. I love a liberal dose of ornate language, but occasionally I felt as though it prevented me from really connecting with the characters and their dilemmas. Nevertheless, this is a beautifully imagined novel that skillfully plays with time and perspective. Station Eleven is more than a story about survival – it’s also a story about figuring out who we are in a world when everything we’ve known has been taken from us. As the Traveling Symphony proclaims on the side of their caravan, “survival is insufficient.”