Emily St. John Mandel – Station Eleven

emilystjohnmandel-stationelevenDAY ONE
The Georgia Flu explodes over the surface of the earth like a neutron bomb.
News reports put the mortality rate at over 99%.

Civilization has crumbled.

A band of actors and musicians called the Travelling Symphony move through their territories performing concerts and Shakespeare to the settlements that have grown up there. Twenty years after the pandemic, life feels relatively safe.
But now a new danger looms, and he threatens the hopeful world every survivor has tried to rebuild.

Moving backwards and forwards in time, from the glittering years just before the collapse to the strange and altered world that exists twenty years after, Station Eleven charts the unexpected twists of fate that connect six people: famous actor Arthur Leander; Jeevan – warned about the flu just in time; Arthur’s first wife Miranda; Arthur’s oldest friend Clark; Kirsten, a young actress with the Travelling Symphony; and the mysterious and self-proclaimed ‘prophet’.

Station Eleven popped onto my radar when I was doing my anticipated books lists last June. The story sounded incredibly cool and quite interesting. Around the same time the book kept popping up in my twitter feed. People were raving about it and praising the story and the writing. Thus when it popped up as a read now title on Netgalley I pounced and got myself a copy. And for once the hype was all deserved. Emily St. John Mandel has created a fascinating world and gripping story in Station Eleven, which made it really hard to put the book down.  

The novel is incredibly well plotted. Mandel’s story consists of three timelines; one set at the start of the outbreak when Leander collapses during King Lear, the second set twenty years later and one that was set years before the Flu hit, when Leander is at the height of his fame. I loved the way Station Eleven weaves through all of them. Everything slotted together seamlessly, I never minded the transitions between the storylines and tracing the whereabouts of various characters across the years was rewarding, especially if I managed to make a connection before their identity was spelled out.

Mandel’s world after the collapse is frightening and believable, even if society has fallen fast and far. Almost everything that is ubiquitous to today’s world – electricity, running water, cars, the internet, and modern medicine just to name a few – has disappeared and humanity has retreated to a more primitive state, all the while living amongst the memories of the world’s prior glories. The continuing hope that perhaps the flue was limited to just North America and that maybe, just maybe, people from other continents will come and save the survivors is bittersweet. As is the nostalgia that reigns for things that were lost. This nostalgia is illustrated through the reminiscing about TV shows and Kirsten’s best friend August’s fascination with TV Guides they come across. They become treasured reminders of the past instead of the ephemeral publications they are in our society.

While the emotional charge to the relationships in the earliest timeline is quite well-drawn and the panic and fear that reigns during the collapse was palpable, Kirsten’s tale, set in the post-apocalyptic future, was my favourite. I loved the world Mandel created in the after, it was bleak and scary, but also very human and still hopeful. I love the mindset of the group that just existing and surviving isn’t enough, that actual living has to include culture. In fact, the motto of the company is “Survival is insufficient”, a quote taken from Star Trek. It’s this continual search for more meaning to life that I found fascinating about this timeline.

At the heart of the novel lies a mystery that ties all the story lines together, which Mandel slowly, enticingly reveals, without making the story centre on said the mystery. Instead, the relationships between the characters and the importance of sometimes just small gestures and interactions are what is most important in the narrative. The one thing I would have loved to have seen more of is Miranda’s titular Station Eleven graphic novel, because it actually sounded really interesting!

Mandel delivers a complex and compelling post-apocalyptic tale in a literary costume, one that I can see having lots of crossover appeal between genre and mainstream fiction readers. Great plotting, stunning writing and great characters, what more can a reader ask for? Station Eleven is a story that haunted my dreams while I was reading it and stayed with me after I finished it. It’s easy to see why it has been shortlisted for a National Book Award this year. If you enjoy post-apocalyptic fiction I highly recommend picking up Station Eleven.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.