Title: Station Eleven
Author: Emily St. John Mandel
Genre: Fiction, Science Fiction
Rating: Loved it (5 out of 5)
I don’t quite remember when or where I first started reading about Station Eleven, although it was sometime late last year. What I do remember is how good everyone said it was. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve read one bad review yet. And this one isn’t going to buck the trend because I loved it.
It opens with a famous actor, Arthur Leader, collapsing on stage whilst playing King Lear and the attempts of trainee Paramedic Jeevan to save him. Walking home through a snowy Toronto later that night, Javeen realises that, after more than one failed attempt, he has finally chosen the right career. It is the same night that a flu pandemic arrives in Canada, and begins to sweep across continents, leaving few survivors.
Fifteen years later, Arthur is nothing more than a memory for the (no longer) child actress, Kirsten, who performed with him in King Lear that night. But those memories are some of the few she has of the world before. Unlike King Lear. Shakespeare is still very much part of her present as she is a member of a troop of travelling actors and musicians who peform for some of the last remaining outposts dotted around the Great Lakes.
They have been travelling a long time and, for the most part, things have gone well. After 15 years the world has settled into a rhythm and, whilst maybe not completely safe, isn’t as dangerous as it was after the flu first hit. That is until they arrive in a town under the control of a Prophet. His future wife (who happens to be 12) stows away with them to avoid getting married and they all end up in danger.
That said, this isn’t a violent story, and this was one of the things I liked about it. So many post-apocalyptic novels are full of violence. Everyone is out for themselves and their worlds are grey and dark. Station Eleven isn’t like that. No, it’s not the world it was but, in some ways, that doesn’t seem so bad. There is the part where life is simpler and people have found what is important to them. For Kirsten, it’s acting. For Javeen, it’s medicine. People may not have a lot, but for the most part they are satisfied.
Satisfaction is something Arthur Leader never felt and, although he doesn’t make it through the first chapter, he is very much a presence in the book, with his story being told at the same time as Kirsten’s – because the fact that they appeared on the same stage isn’t the only link between them or between the past and the present. How those links play out is really interesting and kept me reading and guessing.
Beyond Arthur, Kirstin, and Jeevan, there are also stories for Arthur’s ex-wives, his son, his best friend, and the members of the Travelling Symphony. That’s a lot of people to keep track of but I had no problem keeping up with the multiple story and time lines thanks to the writing style, which meant there was a nice flow between the then and now.
As each character’s story unfolded I found myself caring about each of them, even Arthur, and felt sad when their lives didn’t quite turn out as they’d hoped, happy when despite everything they found a sense of peace. This goes back to this being a different type of post-apocalyptic world than I’ve normally read about and one of the main reasons I liked the book. In the end, it might not have been a happy ending in the traditional sense of the word but it was a positive one and I was left feeling a sense of hope for everyone left behind. Now I am keeping my fingers crossed for a sequel!
Have you read it – what did you think?