Book Review: Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven: just another post-apocalyptic tale?

Yes, I thought the same thing before I began Station Eleven, but this one really is different.
A virus, named the Georgia flu, has spread throughout the planet, killing off 99.99% of the population. The novel follows the citizens that are left and their fight to live in what is left of the world, a world without air travel, paracetamol, or electricity.
Station Eleven begins on stage, a production of King Lear with an A-Lister, Arthur Leander, as Lear. He mysteriously drops dead mid-performance. The Shakespearean theme continues throughout as the book jumps to 20 years after the arrival of the flu.
The Travelling Symphony travels through settlements, performing Shakespearian plays such as Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and King Lear. They are made up of musicians and actors who perform to entertain the survivors, and perhaps to remind them of a past long gone. Their slogan? “Survival is insufficient”, a line taken from Star Trek.
Station Eleven has two main parallels, pre-flu and post-flu: the life of Arthur Leander up until the day he died, and Year Twenty, where the Travelling Symphony are roaming through America. In this way, Mandel can demonstrate the relationships between the characters from ‘before’ and ‘after’.

Book Hint: If you have the hardback edition, there’s a special surprise waiting on page 304, but don’t get over-excited and skip ahead!

A member of the Travelling Symphony, Kirsten, was on stage with Arthur when he died. She was 8, and she finds herself collecting newspaper clippings about him found in derelict houses though she doesn’t know why. Kirsten also owns a copy of a comic, Station Eleven. She doesn’t know who it belongs to, but that it was created by M.C.
Mandel also introduces us to Jeevan. As a journalist, he met Arthur through doing interviews with him. Jeevan has also photographed Arthur’s first wife, Miranda, though Arthur isn’t aware of this. Kirsten owns a paperweight that was once Miranda’s, though she doesn’t know this or how she came to own it. There’s also a man known as ‘The Prophet’ hunting towns and taking women as his wives. But who is he, and how exactly does he fit into the jigsaw that Mandel has created?

Will all of these lives eventually come together in an unorthodox way?

Through her novel, Mandel explores the meaning of what it means to be happy. She throws in reminders of the ‘old world’ through the glamour of paparazzi and glossy magazines. She explores the thoughts of characters who can’t imagine what air conditioning might feel like. It is a reminder to us of what we have, and how difficult it would be to live without it.
Kirsten discovers a house on her travels and thinks: “That’s what it would have been like, she realized, living in a house. You would leave and lock the door behind you, and all through the day you would carry a key.” What is normality for us in our world is complete madness to those that live in Year Twenty.
Mandel leaves us feeling, not in fear of the end of the world as we know it, but appreciative of everything we have in the present.

Overall rating: 4/5

You walk into a room and flip a switch and the room fills with light. You leave your garbage in bags on the curb, and a truck comes and transports it to some invisible place. When you’re in danger, you call for the police. Hot water pours from faucets. Lift a receiver or press a button on a telephone, and you can speak to anyone. All of the information in the world is on the Internet, and the Internet is all around you, drifting through the air like pollen on a summer breeze. There is money, slips of paper that can be traded for anything: houses, boats, perfect teeth. There are dentists.