BookBrowse Reviews Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

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Station Eleven

by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel X
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2014, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2015, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster
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Emily Mandel's fourth novel is a wholly believable dystopia in which 99% of the population has been wiped out by a pandemic.

Station Eleven made big waves in 2014. It was a National Book Award finalist and made it into our Best of the Year issue before we even got a chance to review it. Although we are a little late to the party, it is well worth taking a look at a novel that has struck such a chord with so many readers. Dystopian stories have been hugely popular recently (see 'Beyond the Book'), but this one in particular marks a successful combination of an authentic speculative vision of the future and imagined nostalgia for all we are lucky to have now.

The novel opens with a performance of King Lear at Toronto's Elgin Theatre. The lead role is played by 51-year-old Arthur Leander, who after years in Hollywood and several failed marriages is returning to his Canadian roots. During Act Four, Arthur suffers a heart attack and dies onstage, despite the ministrations of paparazzo-turned-paramedic Jeevan Chaudhary. Kirsten Raymonde, a child actor in this experimental production, had become particularly close with Arthur, and Jeevan tries to comfort her once he realizes CPR is futile.

As Jeevan leaves the theatre to visit his wheelchair-bound brother Frank, an Afghanistan war veteran, he gets a call from a doctor friend at the local hospital, warning him that the Georgia Flu is turning into a full-scale epidemic. Jeevan buys seven shopping carts' worth of supplies and holes up in his brother's twenty-second floor apartment, even though most people probably think he is crazy for believing the rumors.

It turns out this decision saves his life. The chilling final lines of Chapter 2 foreshadow the flu's growth into a pandemic that kills 99% of the global population: "Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city." Technology fails: all planes are grounded, and the Internet goes dark. One of the most striking passages of the entire novel is a litany of everything lost in the collapse: "No more ballgames played out under floodlights…No more cities. No more films…No more pharmaceuticals…No more fire departments, no more police."

Fast forward to Year 20: Kirsten is an actress with the Traveling Symphony, bringing Shakespeare to the Lake Michigan region. "People want what was best about the world," a friend observes, and, for the members of the Symphony at least, Shakespeare is the pinnacle of literary achievement. Even after the apocalypse, art endures. However, life is precarious for this band of actors and musicians. At their next stop they are warned about a prophet and urged to leave town. Yet Kirsten is desperate to learn what happened to her friend Charlotte, who was pregnant when she left town two years ago with her partner. There are rumors of a settlement at the Museum of Civilization at Severn City airport, so the symphony heads that way.

Mandel alternates between the present and the pre-collapse past, exploring Arthur's history and showing how traces of him are still alive today. Kirsten collects gossip magazines and books related to Arthur, and her most prized possession is the graphic novel series Station Eleven, created by Arthur's ex-wife, Miranda. In this story-within-the-story, the Undersea colonists reflect the ennui of pre-collapse humanity: "They spend all their lives waiting for their lives to begin." Lines from the Station Eleven comic strip weave through this novel as a kind of commentary on the loss of normal life: "I stood looking over my damaged home and tried to forget the sweetness of life on Earth."

Is the meager human population a chosen remnant? Does everything happen for a reason? This mysterious prophet they keep hearing about thinks so, and as we gradually learn his backstory we understand why. Mandel reveals satisfying connections between the storylines, but I was somewhat disappointed with Jeevan's reduced role in the rest of the novel. Although I sometimes wondered whether all the time switches and subplots were essential – Arthur's love life and professional ups and downs can seem dull – Mandel manages it all with aplomb, as a theatre director in her own right. My only other criticism is that a book so reliant on comics should include some illustrations.

"Hell is the absence of the people you long for." Everyone in the post-collapse world has lost someone; most have lost entire families, friends and lovers. Still, somehow, art persists – stories, drawings, music, and even Shakespearean language. "What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty." Mandel reminds readers to be grateful for all we possess and warns us how fragile this seemingly impervious technology-driven life actually is.

Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

This review was originally published in December 2014, and has been updated for the June 2015 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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