‘Because survival is insufficient’ ~ p 58
TITLE: Station Eleven
AUTHOR: Emily St. John Mandel
GENRE: Literary Fiction
PUBLISHED: September 2014
Station Eleven is a post-apocalyptic novel with a definite twist – it’s not a post-apocalyptic novel. Emily St. John Mandel uses the idea of a post-apocalyptic future to explore ideas of art, beauty, memory and survival. Whilst the majority of futuristic novels often feel unbelievable and sometimes even ridiculous, this novel is totally credible and chillingly realistic, exploring what is central to humanity existence with a retiring message of hope for the future. Set partly in a devastated future and partly in the present day, this extraordinary novel should be read as an innovative piece of literary fiction rather than a geeky sci-fi.
Station Eleven begins in a theatre on a snowy night in Toronto where the death of Arthur Leander mid-performance in King Lear coincides with the arrival of the Georgian Flu. After which, the world will never be the same again. Set primarily in Toronto, North America, the story follows four characters before, during and after a flu epidemic wipes out 99.6% of the world’s population. Told in flashbacks, the narrative jumps around, which at times can become confusing, from the night of the outbreak to the remains of the world two decades later.
“The unknowing connection between the characters and Arthur is what makes this novel so engaging and exciting to read”
The story centres on Kirsten Raymonde twenty years after her role as Lear’s infant daughter, and the Travelling Symphony, a theatre troupe who travel the wasteland performing Shakespeare. The novel focuses on their relationships, the odd behaviours of settlements they visit, and the mysterious disappearances of their friends. All of which is framed by their performances of music and plays from a world ago. We also encounter Jeevan Chaudhary and his essential role in the opening scene and the circumstances of his survival in a dying world. Clark Thompson, friend of Arthur, seems to be the over seer of all. Stationed at the deserted Severn City Airport, he takes it upon himself to preserve useless material things like passports and credit cards in The Museum of Civilisation. Miranda Carroll, the fourth key character, is an ex-wife of Arthur and author of ‘Station Eleven’ the comic-book where we see her view of the world through the eyes of the comic-book character, Dr. Eleven. The comic’s purpose isn’t altogether clear, yet its presence before and after the epidemic ties together the pre and post-apocalyptic world nicely.
Seen through the eyes of these four central characters, the novel is interwoven with inserts from an interview between Kirsten and a librarian in the Year Fifteen, and letters from Arthur to the mysterious ‘V’ years before. The story concludes with the identity of the cult-leader, the Prophet, being revealed and the departure of the Travelling Symphony for a city where lights twinkle hopefully in the distance.
“You can kill the people but you cannot kill the art”
With no explicit main character, this is a book about the lives of many; the remains of humanity and the journeys life takes them on. It is every characters’ link with Arthur and the dramatic irony of this which is enthralling. The unknowing connection between them is what makes this novel so engaging and exciting to read.
Further, the prominent use of Shakespeare, the graphic novel and music highlights the novel’s concern with the survival of art and survival through art. It emphasises the importance of preservation, protection and the purpose of true beauty in this world – you can kill the people but you cannot kill the art. This sentiment is reflected in the lyrical writing style which makes the book stand out further from other post-apocalyptic novels.
“It is a beautifully written, optimistic commentary on human existence”
Mandel also tackles the delicacy of memory, looking at Kirsten’s forgotten life, recorded by an interviewer attempting to create a history for people to remember. Whilst we may think that considering the past is a way of framing and understanding the present and looking to the future, Kirsten’s gap in her memory doesn’t seem to trouble her as she poignantly says “the more you remember, the more you’ve lost.” p 195
This book doesn’t have the hopelessness of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the political themes and fast-paced action of Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games or the creatures of Justin Cronin’s The Passage. Instead the characters face real dangers of running out of supplies and facing human opposition. It is a beautifully written, optimistic commentary on human existence about the characters, their relationships and the necessity of more than just surviving. A worthy Winner of Arthur C. Clarke Award 2015, this book was simply un-put-down-able.