Book Review: Station Eleven

Station eleven book coverThis book was another airport find for me. I was staring down a 10.5 hour trip from Los Angeles to London and as it stands I cannot sleep on planes. It has something to do with the fact that I’m 4’11’’. My back doesn’t line up with the seat, my head misses the headrest area, and my feet swing above the ground. It makes for an unpleasant experience despite the fact I’m one of the few grown adults that doesn’t need to worry about any spacing issues. You can imagine how happy I was when I opened Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and was immediately met with a stunning end for one of our characters.

“Because survival is insufficient.”

That is the driving theme behind Mandel’s dystopic novel. Following a deadly flu virus that has all but wiped out mankind, the novel jumps between the pre and post-apocalyptic stories of our characters, who are intertwined and connected through one aging Hollywood actor. We have his first wife, oldest friend, failed savior, and the young girl who at the age of 8 idolized this man both as an actor and surrogate father. Station Eleven provides a close and intimate examination of the relationships and experiences that make us human – and the ones that allow us to devolve from our humanity.

It opens on a blistery cold night in Toronto. Our aging star, Arthur Leander, is making his stage comeback by playing the role of King Lear. Near him stands precocious Kirsten Raymonde, who at 8 years old already knows that she wants to make acting her career. Arthur suffers a fatal heart attack in the midst of one of his speeches. There is barely time for the world to react before the flu virus sweeps across North America. Instead of lamenting a life tragically cut short the world watches in horror as the death toll climbs and the world goes dark.

Fast forward 20 years later and we find a world entirely changed. Now there is no Canada. No America. No world. Mankind functions in a state of semi-lawlessness and small segregated towns. New generations are born into a world without electricity, gas, and running water. The Internet is talked about in nostalgic tones. And children stare wide-eyed when told tales of machines that could fly or cross the vast land in a fraction of a second that it now takes to walk.

In the midst of this we find Kirsten. Constantly armed with a belt of knives, she has become hardened and suspicious of the world around her. Trusting a select few, Kirsten views the world as an island adrift and constantly in search of some kind of life raft. She is also part of the Traveling Symphony: a couple dozen or so musicians and actors that roam the Great Lakes region providing free public concerts and Shakespearean plays – because that is what the public prefers. At the center of it all lies Kirsten’s obsession with Arthur. She scours homes and ransacks bookshelves, looking for any printed messages or images of her lost idol. Through Kirsten and her collection of gossip magazines and two comic book series, we see flashbacks to Arthur’s life before the pandemic and those who knew him that survived. We meet his first wife, creator of the comics and jilted lover who mourns Arthur’s passing before succumbing to the virus. His best friend, who has set up shop at an airport, preserving old world artifacts in his make-shift museum. The prophet, who rules a small town using fear, death, and false promises.

From the opening scene to the final act, Station Eleven is a suspenseful yet intimate novel that forces its reader to question what makes us human. Unlike other post-apocalyptic storylines (Divergent series, Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, Mad Max, Cloud Atlas, and Brave New World) Station Eleven has very little action and bloodshed. Instead, it chooses to look at humanity through a softer lens and the importance that art, culture, and preservation play in humanity’s survival. Through it all there is an unwavering sense of hope and the belief that when the lights do turn back on our characters want to make sure the best parts of humanity survives. Hope is what survives. Hope is what makes life worth living.