Book Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

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Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel (Harper Avenue, 2014)

This post-apocalytic story has several unique features that make it stand out from the usual fare in this increasingly popular genre.

The apocalypse here is brought about by the Georgian Flu, a virus with an insanely quick incubation period and a fatality rate of approximately 99%. The novel follows three intersecting stories and timelines: Before, During, and After.

The most interesting part of the novel takes place in Year 20 after the flu hits worldwide. With only a miniscule population left, those who remain live a Medieval-type existence, surviving among the wreckage of their former civilization. While evidence of what humankind was capable of is everywhere, a generation has grown up who doesn’t remember life before the flu.

This is a hopeful apocalypse. After twenty years, violence is minimal and what looting has occurred has basically stopped. Even the sections of the book that take place during and directly following the flu are surprisingly calm. There’s a fascinating section set among immediate survivors of the flu as they begin to slowly rebuild their lives and to realize what has happened. Aside from one rapist (who’s promptly driven away at gunpoint), there are barely even any disagreements. While I’m not sure how realistic this would be, I kind of enjoyed a less stressful version of the end of the world.

This calm is best evidenced by the fact that in Year 20 we follow the Travelling Symphony, a nomadic group of musicians and actors. Moving from place to place, they perform Shakespeare and believe that “survival is insufficient.” It’s an interesting take on life after the apocalypse and one that places a high value on art. It also encourages those Medieval comparisons and a glimpse of a world perhaps entering its own Renaissance.

The third part of the book follows the life of Arthur Leander, a famous actor in the present day, whose on-stage death starts off the novel. Wealthy, aging, three times divorced, we are told the story of Arthur’s life from his early days and multiple perspectives. Arthur is the link between several of the characters and his life offers a contrast of celebrity culture but while there are some interesting questions raised, overall I felt like Arthur could have been cut from the book entirely without any great loss.

Station Eleven is engaging, very readable, and has enough unique factors and perspectives to more than balance out its weaknesses. I’ll be happy to see more from St. John Mandel in the future.

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