Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Knopf, Sept 9th, 2014)-Station Eleven takes place, mostly, in Year Twenty, which is, appropriately, 20 years after 99% of the world’s population is obliterated by a swift killer called the Georgia Flu. The comment is made by one character that it’s kind of a lovely name (after the Georgia of Eurasia, it’s origin), for something that kills so quickly and ruthlessly, roughly 48 hours after infection. The Symphony, a traveling troupe of musicians and Shakespearean actors, is the focus, most prominently Kirsten Raymonde, who was very small when the Flu hit during a production of King Lear,which she was performing in, alongside Arthur Leander, a very famous actor in his 50s that would not die of the flu that night, but of a heart attack, on stage. Kirsten will never forget that night, or Arthur Leander, and she still carries with her a few comics he gave her that day, entitled Station Eleven.
Station Eleven is an apocalyptic novel, but although it takes place pre and post-apocalypse, that’s not what the real story is about. While there’s much to be mined from how humans would survive after such a devastation, and the author does explore this, she focuses on a small group of people whose lives have resonated with one another in some way, be it intimate or fleeting, and of course, their connection to Arthur Leander. As we follow the Symphony in Year 20, they’re traveling from settlement to settlement and performing for those that remain, but they also seek two of their troupe members, and during this search, the narrative branches out to explore Arthur’s life before the fall, a portrait of a sensitive man loved by so many but unable to become settled in his own life, his regrets, his loves, and ultimately, his heartbreak. Meanwhile, the Symphony comes across evidence of a man that seeks to serve his own dark agenda, and who calls himself a prophet. The author makes it pretty obvious that eventually there will be a reckoning with the prophet, but it may not be what you think.
I love what Mandel did with this book. After so much death, Station Eleven is a story about life, and most importantly, living, and living fully, after so much devastation. Kirsten is the embodiment of this, in her passion for art and the importance of memory. Of course, Arthur could be said to be her post-flu counterpart, and at the end of his life, although he has regrets, the utter love for what he does, is evident, and heartbreaking in its purity. Station Eleven is a rather gentle novel, in spite of its sometimes harrowing subject matter, and never have I read a more elegant handling of the downfall of society. The author has a knack for capturing the beauty in seemingly small things and treats her flawed and very human characters with dignity and respect, even those that eventually go astray. A favorite quote (from Star Trek, no less) of Kirsten’s is “Because survival is insufficient.” Indeed. And it pretty much captures the heart of this wondrous book.
Is it pretty clear yet how much I love this book? Mandel’s prose is like something from a fairy tale-a dark fairy tale, at times, to be sure, but dreamlike in the most wonderful of ways, and it carries an undeniable message of hope, of a flickering of light in the darkness. This book will make you feel, and really, what more can you ask from a good book, or in this case, a great one? Emily St. John Mandel is going to be a star, and she deserves to be. If you’re looking for something a little different, a little left of center, unexpected, sometimes heartbreaking and scary, and utterly lovely, look no further than Station Eleven.