Book Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven is a book I devoured when I first read it, and one I’ve kept on my shelf, gifted to friends and recommended to many others. It’s also a book worth revisiting. I feel the need of its hopeful message even more now, as 2016 draws to a close, than when it first came out two years ago.
What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty. One snowy night in Toronto famous actor Arthur Leander dies on stage whilst performing the role of a lifetime. That same evening a deadly virus touches down in North America. The world will never be the same again. Twenty years later Kirsten, an actress in the Travelling Symphony, performs Shakespeare in the settlements that have grown up since the collapse. But then her newly hopeful world is threatened. If civilization was lost, what would you preserve? And how far would you go to protect it?
Going into this, I was expecting something as bleak as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, although even that had a glimmer of hope thanks to its central relationship. I mean, Station Eleven doesn’t sound like the most uplifting read from its blurb, does it? Read the words “deadly virus” and you know you are heading into post-apocalyptic territory, right after that very same virus wipes out most of the population. 99% of it, as it turns out here.
Station Eleven’s opening made this reader feel a rush of expectation, similar to that which spreads through a theatre pre-performance, only for Arthur Leander’s sudden demise to usher in a dramatic scene change to one where the world has become an emptier, lonelier and more fragmented place. We do still tend towards gathering in groups, and while these are notably less open to outsiders and more insular, Station Eleven looks at the connections we form and considers how vital they are to us as human beings.
Station Eleven tells the story of this altered world through five people besides Arthur Leander: these are his oldest friend Clark; his ex-wife Miranda; Jeevan, who heeded a warning about the flu; Kirsten, an actress with the troupe that is the Travelling Symphony; and the shadowy figure of the self-proclaimed prophet. As with some six degrees of separation, the connections between these people are revelatory when they come and one of the joys of reading this book was when it all slotted into place for me. Which, in turn, threw up so many questions. Station Eleven is one book that has stayed with me and given me plenty to think about long after I closed its pages for the first time.
Station Eleven demands that you consider what’s worth saving; what’s worth living for, standing up for, even fighting for; what makes living worthwhile; whether we are the product of our environment or upbringing, that old nature v nurture dilemma, or if we can shape our own destiny and change our fates. Do we need stories and art and beauty as human beings? Will they survive as long as we do? I’d like to think so. The idea of a travelling band of players still performing Shakespeare, even in this world decimated by a deadly virus, was a comforting thought. That people would still want beauty and some of us would create it for others to enjoy as well as to ensure that we still felt what it is to do that, to live, to be human. And it made me think about what I would miss in this world but also what I would try and save to preserve my trust and belief in humanity, and hang on to my own. Station Eleven is a surprisingly moving story about human beings and the relationships and art they can create even when the odds are against either enduring.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is published by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, in hardback and paperback and as an ebook and audiobook. It is available from Amazon UK, Audible UK, Foyles, Hive (supporting your local independent bookshop) and Waterstones. Station Eleven was a finalist for a National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, and won the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Toronto Book Award, and the Morning News Tournament of Books, and has been translated into 27 languages. You can find out more about the author and her books on her Author Website, Tumblr or Twitter. I was given a review copy of this book by the publisher through NetGalley but have since bought my own copy, ones for friends and the giveaway copy below.
For a chance to win a copy of Station Eleven, leave a comment below telling me what you’d want to save or preserve in an apocalyptic situation. I’ll pick a winner at 5pm on 10 December.