Title: Station Eleven
Author: Emily St John Mandel
Publisher/Date Published: Picador, 2014
How I Got This Book: Purchased myself.
Rating: 5 out of 5
Station Eleven is a novel difficult to define. It glides effortlessly between literary fiction, dystopia and science-fiction, scavenging the best elements from each of these genres and using them to build something wholly unique and beautiful. The novel opens on a winter production of King Lear in modern day Toronto. Amidst gently falling artificial snow, the renowned big screen actor Arthur Leander takes to the stage as Lear and collapses during the performance. While confusion ripples through the audience, a junior paramedic rushing to futilely revive the aging man, there is a greater threat closing in – a flu so unprecedented, swift and deadly that within hours of exposure the hospitals are overrun with afflicted men, women and children. None of these people survive the night.
Twenty years after the virus, the novel follows Kirsten, a young woman who joined a travelling symphony that crosses the borderless land that once was North America personified Shakespearean plays, preserving the art in this post-apocalyptic time under the egis that “survival is insufficient”.
The premise of this book was irresistible to me – it promises an exploration of art and its importance to human existence, the drama and conflict of a post-apocalyptic world, and a realism and subtlety that young adult novels sometimes lack. I enjoyed some aspects of the book more than others, but overall, Station Eleven satisfied each one of my expectations, often surpassing them in ways I hadn’t anticipated.
Initially the shifting time periods seemed a bit disjointed, things seemed to tenuously connect but it wasn’t immediately clear why certain elements like interviews were there. This meant I did struggle at points to connect with the characters and the pace really slowed down for me. Reading through, I do see how the book benefited from these elements being there and they were woven into the overall narrative more than I had thought they would be. In particular, I loved how Kirsten’s story developed through the interweaving narratives and though I was sceptical at first, the interviews did enhance this for me.
If you’ve picked up this book thinking it’s a science-fiction novel, or a dystopia in a traditional sense, you may finish the book disappointed – there are sci-fi elements through the Dr Eleven comic book series that is referenced throughout the book by numerous characters, but the book itself is wholly real, albeit in the near future. I thought the imagery that the author used when depicting the open sandbox of a damaged world post the virus, balanced with the claustrophobic chaos of the world that was before was wonderful. It causes you to assess all the elements of life you consider important on a microcosmic and macrocosmic level: no more electricity, no more Twitter, but also a finite number of resources and food. While reading you are called upon to think about the cultural references that you know and love that would be meaningless in a world of survival – TV shows, music, books. These things can survive in the minds of those who love and remember them long after the program has gone off air or the pages have been lost.
Readers may struggle with this book if you are expecting a fast-paced, action packed post-apocalyptic thriller. It doesn’t satisfy that. But Station Eleven is a read that I loved, and I would recommend it to anyone who has an appreciation for culture and is looking for something that poses genuinely interesting questions about what we would want to preserve if civilisation were truly lost.