The Pocket Guide Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Let me get this off my plate right now: you should read this book. Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven is both genre-defying and full of contradictions – it is tragic yet humorous, delicate yet violent. Post-apocalyptic fiction is not usually something that I’m drawn to, but this book had me hooked from the first chapter. Much of it is set in the future, but its roots are firmly grounded in the world we live in now, or at the very least its afterglow. Station Eleven is just as much a story about an incomprehensible future as it is an ode to the past (and you don’t have to worry about zombies keeping you up at night).
The book begins with the end, at least for its main character. When famed actor Arthur Leander dies onstage during a snowy Toronto performance of King Lear, it serves as a defining moment that links the web of characters that populate the book. But Arthur’s death also marks the beginning of the end of civilization. It is only hours later that a pandemic called the Georgian Flu begins its sudden and cataclysmic assault on North America, ultimately spreading throughout the world.
Telling the story through chronological jumps that examine Arthur’s life as well as those of his loved ones and acquaintances, Mandel is able to wrench your heart and keep you wondering where she’s going next. A chapter may follow Kirsten, a child at the time of Arthur’s death and now an actress in The Traveling Symphony (a troupe of Shakespearean actors), or it may bring you to a Malaysian beach with Arthur’s first ex-wife, Miranda. The characters begin as islands with seemingly no ties to one another, but they are slowly drawn together in intricate, random, and yet completely logical ways. Images, names, and phrases turn up in unexpected places, giving each chapter a dash of déjà vu.
Art, in all its forms, is the strand that creates this cohesiveness and links these characters. Comic books, novels, and letters travel across time and through many hands, influencing each character differently. Shakespearean plays written during 16th century plagues are performed on the eve of and twenty years after the plague to end all plagues. There is a continuum created by art that goes unbroken despite the collapse of everything else mankind has built. In Station Eleven, art always endures because, as the Traveling Symphony’s motto states, “…survival is insufficient.”
Despite chronicling the collapse of civilization, Station Eleven is a book about hope and beauty.
Mandel deftly uses the post-apocalyptic setting as a lens through which to celebrate everything that mankind has achieved up through the early 21st century. From flight and poetry to medicine and cities (and the marvels of cellphones, diplomatic borders, plastic, grocery stores, and comic books). It is a novel that will capture your imagination and, more importantly, make you see wonder in in what we’ve come to think of as mundane.
As I’ve said before: go read this book.