Review: Station Eleven

Novel by Emily St. John Mandel
Review by Heidi Willis
Issue No. 6 – December 2014

At the height of the Ebola frenzy, on the day the fourth infected person was admitted to a U.S. hospital, Emily St. John Mandel’s fourth novel, Station Eleven, arrived on store shelves. The timing could not have been better for this post-apocalyptic novel, which is built upon the premise of a world decimated by a virulent flu.

The story begins on a snowy night in a Toronto theatre where aging and troubled Hollywood star Arthur Leander dies of a heart attack on stage during a production of King Lear. Eight-year-old actress Kirsten watches from just feet away as the other actors, confused by the unexpected drama, move aside for audience member Jeevan to perform CPR. Eventually, Jeevan pulls the young girl away from the scene, depositing her with her wrangler before getting a call from a doctor friend: The flu is here. Leave now. In the short span of pages that follows, Mandel sets all of the key pieces in play: a child actor, a man with a complex connection to a fallen celebrity and the hint of death still to come. As Arthur’s fellow thespians gather to raise a glass in remembrance, Mandel writes, “Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.”

Some will be put off by the lack of description Mandel offers of the epidemic or the resulting chaos. Jeevan describes it merely as “the divide between a before and an after, a line drawn through his life.” The book itself takes this same approach – delineating the before and the after with the precision of a surgeon’s knife: “There was the flu that exploded like a neutron bomb over the surface of the earth and the shock of the collapse that followed.”

Mandel spends a mere seven paragraphs orienting the reader to this new Earth: “No more ball games played out under floodlights. No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights…No more towns glimpsed from the sky through airplane windows, points of glimmering light…No more countries…No more police…No more Internet. No more social media…No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room.” And then, suddenly, it is twenty years later.

In the “post-collapse” era, the tiny miracles of electricity, of automobiles and packaged foods, of computers and telephones are vague memories. The day-to-day is instead about mere survival: food, water, shelter, safety. Kirsten, just eight when the flu swept away 99% of the population, is now in her late twenties and living with a traveling symphony whose caravan proclaims in its painted lettering, “Survival is insufficient.” In these new Dark Ages, the music and theatre bring small communities rare diversions, although some are not as welcoming as others.

The arts play a significant role in the book. There are, of course, the Shakespearian troupes and the symphony players who form the small band of entertainers, but there are also rescued books, illuminating tattoos, newspapers, museums, and the comic book the novel is named for. Here Mandel reminds us that the things we fear losing – the things that make our modern world function – are not what truly matter. We can do without the WiFi and the Cloud, without the cell phones and televisions, but we cannot do without the things that sing to our hearts.

There is little linear about this novel. It bounces in time and in character, exploring the long life of Arthur, glimpsing Jeevan’s past and present, touching on the lives of stranded airline passengers, and, most prominently, showing the post-pandemic world of Kirsten and the traveling Symphony. At times, especially in the first half, these people seem, at most, only loosely connected, and at other times, nearly random. But the stories eventually intertwine into a tapestry of lives that show how each of us becomes a ripple in another’s journey through this world.

Station Eleven is a 2014 National Book Award Finalist, and rightly so. This book is equal parts haunting and equal parts uplifting, both poetry and prophecy. In our own time of Ebola and swine flu, of the fear of pandemics and the chaos that may result, Mandel takes us to the edge of the worst case scenario and drops us over the cliff, proving in the process that hope can endure.

Station Eleven
Emily St. John Mandel

352 pages, $14.97

Heidi WillisHeidi Willis is the author of the novel Some Kind of Normal. Her work has appeared in The Potomac ReviewPANK, Fiction Writers Review and Campus Life. Willis received her MFA in creative writing from Pacific University and currently lives in Virginia where she works as an editor and college writing tutor.

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