Emily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven (2014)

Station Eleven

Another post-apocalyptic novel and one that so  many have reviewed already. Still, I have to write about Station Eleven because it’s such an impressive book and even though there are so many dystopian and post-apocalyptic books published every year, this one stands out. To a large extent because it’s one of a few – maybe even the only one – that doesn’t make you feel as if someone just bashed you over the head. It has so many moments of glorious beauty that you’ll finish it without feeling a major depression coming on.

The book opens with a theater play. It’s Arthur Leander’s last performance of King Lear. Although he dies during the play he has a pivotal role in the book. The night of the play, a winter night in Toronto, isn’t only Arthur’s last night, it marks the end of most of humanity. In a few days a pandemic will have wiped out 99% of the world’s population.

From that night the novel flash forwards to the future, fifteen years later. Kirsten is part of the Travelling Symphony, an orchestra and theater group who performs Shakespeare plays while travelling from one place to the next. The world has changed a great deal. Everywhere lie the remnants of the old world, in which there still was electricity, air planes, iPhones etc.

I mentioned that Arthur Leander has a pivotal role and that’s because Emily St. John Mandel decided to tell the story of all those who were close to him and present when he died, including the story of some other people linked to him. Kirsten, for example, played a child Cordelia in this modern interpretation of Shakespeare’s play.

Some of the people who were close to Arthur will make it, some won’t. There are some heartbreaking scenes when we read how some of them struggle in vain and die during the pandemic.

What makes the book stand out, apart from the ingenious structure, was how people looked back on what they lost. It makes you grateful for everything we have but at the same time, the book shows that there will always be great things. Because the society we live in now has so much to offer, so  much beauty – art, theater, even technology – that, although 99% of its population are wiped out, many live in a lawless state, and other’s form fanatic cults, there’s still enough that has survived and will go on making our world a special place.

I wonder if this book made it into other people’s dreams as well. While I was reading it, I dreamt every night of the landscapes in the book. That’s why I called it impressive. It’s not overburdened with descriptions but what little she uses is very powerful. If you wonder why it’s called Station Eleven – the title refers to a comic book one of the characters has been drawing almost all of her life.

I liked that the book made me look at what I have and wonder what I would like to keep. Even when it comes to objects. Only things that are useful or even things that are just beautiful?

I could say a lot more about this book but I feel it’s OK to only write a short review because there are so many around at the moment. The important thing is – pick it up. It’s really worth it. If you love post-apocalyptic stories, you’ll read it anyway. If you don’t, maybe it will show you that not every book about the end must be traumatic. Certainly not one that makes you grateful for everything we have and, ultimately, shows that it’s possible to find beauty, no matter what will happen to our world. Nothing illustrates the message of the book better than the reversal of Sartre’s famous quote L’enfer c’est les autres – Hell is other people. In the novel Kirsten thinks that he’s wrong. She has come to the conclusion that hell is the absence of people you feel close to.

I haven’t read The Road yet but I could imagine the two complement each other; one being very gloomy, the other one very luminous.