Book Review | Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

In Mandel’s world, an unsettling surrealism is all around us. The rusted shell of cars stuck on the highway. The exoskeletons of fast food restaurants. The foliage pushing up through the ground in a parking lot. A night sky completely void of light pollution. And alongside this, the fictional existence in an old comic book of Station Eleven, a space station out in the galaxy, where the character says, ‘I stood looking over my damaged home and tried to forget the sweetness of life on Earth.’ It’s hard to say which existence is stranger, sadder. More inconceivable.

In this narrative world, it has been two decades since a deadly pandemic wiped out the vast majority of the earth’s population. Moving at an uncontrollable speed, within days society collapses. The centre could not hold, one of the characters remarks, and things fall apart at a dazzling rate.

‘The news had worsened. The fabric was unravelling. It will be hard to come back from this, he thought, because in those first days it was still inconceivable that civilization might not come back from this at all.’

The world that ends is our world – our ubiquitous technology, our relentless movement – the ‘massive delicate infrastructure of people’ that keeps society going. But the story here isn’t about the outbreak and break down, we’re not watching a car crash in slow motion. Mandel instead examines, in quiet, controlled prose, what rebuilding a world might look like. An acting troupe, the Travelling Symphony, have been traversing North America via horse-drawn wagon for years since the collapse, delivering performances of Shakespeare to the small communities of those who survived against all odds. Their motto, taken from Star Trek, is ‘survival is insufficient.’ Amidst everything that has been lost, one of our protagonists, Kristen, finds herself reflecting on ‘these taken-for-granted miracles that had persisted all around them.’ For there is beauty, even in the desolation.

Alongside ‘year 20’ we travel back to the late 20th and early 21st centuries to explore the life of Arthur Leander, an ageing actor who dies on stage playing King Lear, just hours before the pandemic hits. There is some faltering in the tying together of these different storylines – at times I found the ‘present’ of the novel too arduous and slow-going, the dramas of the ‘past’ too frivolous when you know what’s round the corner. But the links drawn between past and present, and between characters connected by stories and shared histories, does add depth to the story.

A missed opportunity was to capitalise more on the Shakespeare parallels – the novel begins with King Lear on stage, the Symphony solely perform Shakespeare’s plays, and the sections of the novel take names like Midsummer Nights Dream – there is ample opportunity to draw on Shakespeare’s life and works that I felt went under-explored.

There will be many people for whom the last thing they want to read right now is a pandemic-themed novel. I respect anyone who feels that way. For me, I find seeing these fears and feelings articulated on the page is reassuring. I also feel that, reading these novels, I come to learn that things here could always be so much worse. And even if they do get worse, we are going to be okay.

Station Eleven is a thoughtful, articulate piece of speculative fiction, a piece of writing that feels nostalgic but not overly so, leaving us grateful for all that remains.

‘WHAT WAS LOST IN THE COLLAPSE: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty. Twilight in the altered world, a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a parking lot in the mysteriously named town of St. Deborah by the Water, Lake Michigan shining a half mile away. Kirsten as Titania, a crown of flowers on her close-cropped hair, the jagged scar on her cheekbone half-erased by candlelight.’

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