I hadn’t planned on doing another book review so soon- I was going to spread them out and post them here and there among other entries- but this book. Oh my gosh, you guys, THIS BOOK. THIS BOOK IS COMPLETELY AND TOTALLY AMAZEBALLS, AND YOU SHOULD ALL GO GET A COPY AND READ IT RIGHT NOW, I’M NOT EVEN KIDDING.
*ahem* Sorry, I got a little carried away there. Let’s try this again, with a bit more decorum. Right then, from the top: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.
Mandel’s novel opens on a cold winter’s night in Toronto. The night the famous actor Arthur Leander dies onstage during a production of King Lear. The night a mysterious and deadly strain of the flu arrives in the city. The night the end of the world begins. A few weeks later, roughly 99% of humanity lies dead and civilization as we know it has come to an end.
Twenty years later, the Traveling Symphony- a small group of actors and musicians- traverses the altered landscape, moving from settlement to settlement, keeping the remnants of art and culture alive through performances of Shakespeare and Beethoven. The group is headed towards the settlement of St. Deborah by the Water, anticipating a reunion with two of their members, a husband and wife who had stayed behind there the year before to have their baby. Upon arrival, however, they find a town that has drastically changed since their last visit. The inhabitants of St. Deborah by the Water have come under the sway of a dangerous prophet and his fanatical cult, and the Symphony’s former members are nowhere to be found. Disturbed and unnerved, the group turns its steps toward the one clue they have as to their friends’ whereabouts- the mysterious “Museum of Civilization,” rumored to exist in a former airport. The Prophet and his followers are not so easily outrun, however, and even as the Symphony attempts to escape, a final, violent confrontation becomes increasingly inevitable.
I admit that I have not read many books in the post-apocalyptic/dystopian genre, but Station Eleven is unlike any of the ones that I have read. Unlike many post-apocalyptic writers, Mandel is not overly interested in how people survive in the wake of society’s collapse. Few details are given as to how people obtain the basics of food, water, and shelter- twenty years on from the initial event, much of this has been adequately figured out and is no longer people’s sole preoccupation. Rather, Mandel’s interest lies in how people live after the end of the world- how, once the nitty-gritty tasks of survival have been taken care of, people find purpose and meaning in their new existence. Is it through the preservation of art and literature, the re-creation of what was most beautiful in the old world? Is it through the collection of artifacts from before the collapse, the display of cell phones, laptops, and credit cards that illustrate the heights to which humanity once rose? Or is it by clinging desperately to fanatical religious beliefs, finding in one’s own survival proof of eternal salvation? Whatever the means, one theme emerges, expressed in a line from an episode of Star Trek that a member of the Symphony has tattooed on her arm- survival is insufficient.
“Beautiful” is not usually the word that comes to mind when describing post-apocalyptic novels, and yet that is what Station Eleven is- beautiful, in a strange and haunting way. Mandel is a master storyteller, whose smooth and lyrical prose creates a plot as delicate and intricate as a spider’s web. She moves skillfully back and forth in time, alternating between the past and the present, taking up seemingly disconnected threads of story and deftly weaving them together into a seamless whole. If some of the connections between characters seem a bit far-fetched, or some of the events perhaps too coincidental, it is a fault easily forgiven in an otherwise captivating and haunting novel, one that highlights both the beauty and the savagery of our world, as well as the despair and resilience of the human spirit.