Review: Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel

station elevenAn audacious, darkly glittering novel set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse, Station Eleven tells the spellbinding story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity. 

One snowy night Arthur Leander, a famous actor, has a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo-turned-EMT, is in the audience and leaps to his aid. A child actress named Kirsten Raymonde watches in horror as Jeevan performs CPR, pumping Arthur’s chest as the curtain drops, but Arthur is dead. That same night, as Jeevan walks home from the theater, a terrible flu begins to spread. Hospitals are flooded and Jeevan and his brother barricade themselves inside an apartment, watching out the window as cars clog the highways, gunshots ring out, and life disintegrates around them. 

Fifteen years later, Kirsten is an actress with the Traveling Symphony. Together, this small troupe moves between the settlements of an altered world, performing Shakespeare and music for scattered communities of survivors. Written on their caravan, and tattooed on Kirsten’s arm is a line from Star Trek: “Because survival is insufficient.” But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who digs graves for anyone who dares to leave. 

Spanning decades, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, this suspenseful, elegiac novel is rife with beauty. As Arthur falls in and out of love, as Jeevan watches the newscasters say their final good-byes, and as Kirsten finds herself caught in the crosshairs of the prophet, we see the strange twists of fate that connect them all. A novel of art, memory, and ambition, Station Eleventells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it. 

Rating: 4/5

Bleak but so worth the hype. This is how you write an end of the world story. Indeed, this is probably one of the most horrifyingly realistic tales of how humanity as we know it comes to an end.

If hell is other people, what is a world with almost no people in it? Perhaps soon humanity would simply flicker out, but Kristen found this thought more peaceful than sad. So many species had appeared and later vanished from this earth; what was one more? 

In terms of the virus that wipes out majority of the population, Mandel gives us enough information to make it plausible without going into so much scientific detail that it can be picked apart.

And things fall apart – swiftly and ominously. When people stop going about their business, the cogs of everyday life collapse.

Jeevan found himself thinking about how human the city is, how human everything is. We bemoaned the impersonality of the modern world, but that was a lie, it seemed to him; it had never been impersonal at all. There had always been a massive delicate infrastructure of people, all of them working unnoticed around us, and when people stop going to work, the entire operation grinds to a halt. No one delivers fuel to the gas stations or the airports. Cars are stranded. Airplanes cannot fly. Trucks remain at their points of origin. Food never reaches the cities; grocery stores close. Businesses are locked and then looted. No one comes to work at the power plants or the substations, no one removes fallen trees from electrical lines. Jeevan was standing by the window when the lights went out.

Perhaps the most chilling passages for me were those describing the collapse of the newstations and media – in times of disasters, or indeed, at all times, the media is a constant, keeping us updated and connected. When these pillars of communication fall, we’re left truly stranded, isolated from what remains of the rest of the world.

The book consists of several interconnected stories and characters that weave back and forth in time, but it is easy enough to keep track.

Mandel incorporates the most believable of human behaviour in response to the near-apocalyptic conditions – some people pull together and create a semblance of normalcy and community, some turn to violence and pillaging – survival of the fittest, some hide in isolation on the outskirts and avoid the chaos that comes with other humans, and some turn to religious fanaticism.

We stand it because we were younger than you were when everything ended, Kristen thought, but not young enough to remember nothing at all. Because there isn’t much time left, because all the roofs are collapsing now and soon none of the old buildings will be safe. Because we are always looking for the former world, before all the traces of the former world are gone. 

I adored the tale of the Travelling Symphony, whose Star Trek motto, “Because survival is insufficient”, really forms the crux of this novel. Chilling, at times sad, and utterly terrifying in its realism, there are also sparks of hope for a new world that can be built on the graveyard of the former.

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