Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

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January 5, 2017 by readingoutside


There are some novels that just stick with you, that you know you are going to remember forever.  This is one of those novels.  Maybe it’s because it seems so plausible.  A dangerous form of flu sweeps across the world, wiping out 99% of humanity in just a couple of days.  In our global society, it could easily happen.  The world comes to a standstill.  The survivors don’t know what to do in this strange, people-less world.

It sounds bleak, but it isn’t.  Somehow, the author manages to make it hopeful.  Even in the worst of circumstances, people persevere, bringing art and healing and caring to those who remain.  The book follows a cast of characters, jumping back and forth between the pre- and post-plague times.  Everyone is tangentially related to Arthur Leander, a larger-than-life movie star who opens the book by dying onstage in Toronto while playing the title character in a stage production of King Lear.  Kirsten is a child actress playing one of Lear’s daughters in a flashback.  Fifteen years later we see her as a survivor, wandering what remains of the Great Lakes region in the Traveling Symphony, a sort of medieval minstrel show that performs in what small towns have formed.  Who else has survived the plague?  What remains of the former world?  These questions don’t get fully answered until the end, providing a nice puzzle for the reader to solve.

I loved the way this book uses Shakespearean themes to get at the heart of human nature.  So much of the post-plague world depicted reminds me of Elizabethan times, only with the eerie addition of crumbling infrastructure and skeletons sitting in cars.  (Yes, the book is creepy, but necessarily so: for practical reasons, what else could you so with the 7 billion bodies who just die all of a sudden?)  There’s even a theme of religious fanaticism that crops up, which will be familiar to anyone who studied the aftermath of the 14th century Black Death.

The real heart of the story, I think, is the mysterious Station Eleven comics that Kirsten carries with her.  We do find out more about them as the novel unfolds: who created them, and why, and how they came into Kirsten’s possession.  I love the idea of someone’s work of art, meant for private enjoyment, being cherished and understood by a kindred spirit after the creator’s death.

Even if you don’t feel like analyzing the themes, and are just looking for a smart, enjoyable dystopian story, I highly recommend Station Eleven.


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