Station Eleven ~ Emily St. John Mandel

StationElevenHCUS2Every now and again you come across a novel which is so compelling that the moment you finish it you simply want to turn back to the beginning and start reading it all over again.  That such a book should exist is remarkable enough but that it should be a book you would never normally have given a second thought to had it not been for a chance discussion overheard on the radio makes the occurrence extraordinary.  Emily St John Mandel’s novel, Station Eleven, is a post-apocalyptic tale.  If asked to read this I would have said that I had had enough of the apocalypse to last me a life time, thank you, and passed.  That would have been a mistake.

Mandel’s premise is that one of the several influenza variants finally causes a pandemic.  While the catastrophe starts in the Republic of Georgia, the incubation period is so short that people fall ill while they are in transit between continents and in a matter of weeks the world as we know it has gone.

Arthur Leander is ‘lucky’.  He is struck down on stage by a heart attack in the middle of a performance of King Lear just as the contagion reaches Toronto.  In many ways Lear is a metaphor for what is to come.  Kingdoms will fall apart.  Life as those who are left have known it will come to an end.  Many will not be alive to continue but those that are will discover the truth of the play’s closing lines:

The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young,
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

Moving with ease between the period before the pandemic and the lives of the survivors twenty years on, Mandel explores what it has meant for those who have had to go on to find themselves walking out of one world and into another.  Principally, we follow the fortunes of The Travelling Symphony, a group of actors and musicians who tour from settlement to settlement performing concerts and Shakespeare’s plays wherever they find an audience.  Shakespeare’s works have been chosen not simply because of their value as literature but because the playwright also came from a time that was defined by plague and his stories speak to a people who likewise know what it means to live each day in the shadow of death.

Foremost amongst the troupe is Kirsten.  Only a child when she appeared in that final production of Lear, she has brought the memory of the great actor with her, along with his last gift, two comics which tell the story of Dr Eleven, also a survivor after a disaster which has wiped out his planet and left him and a small group of followers striving to make a new life on a station cobbled together from what remains after their disaster.  Art and life are intricately woven together, because as the members of The Travelling Symphony know, Survival is Insufficient.  It isn’t enough simply to live.  It is also necessary to try and make something greater out of the disaster.  The fact that the quote comes from Star Trek: Voyager simply emphasises the fact that art travels with diverse person and in diverse places.

While there is no pretence that life is not both difficult and dangerous for those who have survived the pandemic, this is not the horror fiction that so many post-apocolyptic works are.  Yes, there are occasions when those who only want to live out a peaceful existence are forced to defend themselves to the death, but there is no gratuitous violence and far more prevalent are instances of real empathy and affection and acts of pure kindness and gentility.  This is supported by Mandel’s writing, which has a calmness and grace about it that encourages the reader to see the situation as one that has real grounds for hope built into it.  Civilisation as it was known may have collapsed, but communities are surviving and slowly but surely a new way of life is being forged out of the wreckage.  So much of this type of fiction seems to have been written by those who think little of humanity.  Mandel clearly believes that for the most part we are pretty decent individuals.  Perhaps I like this book so much because I happen to agree with her.

I haven’t read Mandel’s other three novels, simply because until a week ago I had never heard of her.  I understand that this is something of a departure for her.  Perhaps, with Station Eleven she has found her niche.  Nevertheless, I will now go back and explore those earlier works because this one has convinced me that she is a writer who has something really quite profound to say about the nature of humankind, our relationship to each other and to the world in which we live.  Station Eleven was a surprising and remarkable discovery.

38 thoughts on “Station Eleven ~ Emily St. John Mandel

    1. When I first heard it spoken about, Cathy, it was the Shakespearean context that really caught my imagination but you don’t have to be drawn in by that to appreciate the novel.

  1. I thought this book was excellent. I always enjoy dystopian novels, but Station Eleven offers such a different perception of the aftermath in which modern technology and medicine may be lost, but artists, musicians, theater can still be treasured. I look forward to more from Emily St. John Mandel.

    1. I looked up her earlier books, Jenclair and they are all thrillers. I might seek them out because the quality of her writing is so good but I too am looking forward to what comes next.

  2. I’m tremendously excited to read this. I agree with you that many dystopian novels are predicated on the idea that humans are essentially kind of cruddy. It’ll be refreshing to read one that doesn’t assume the worst of us. Plus, Shakespeare!

  3. I really want to read this and intend to do so. My only problem is that it is being hyped to the hilt and I’m beginning to feel overwhelmed by all the publicity. But I shall read it anyway.

    1. I hadn’t come across it before the radio discussion, Sarah and that was out of the US. There was a review in this Saturday’s Times but that was the first time I had seen a UK mention. Don’t let the hype get in the way. It deserves to be read on its own merits.

  4. Given all that’s been happening in the world this summer I’ve been avoiding this book but this is the second enthusiastic review that I’ve read by someone whose opinion I trust so I’ll have to rethink.

    1. Yes, with the Ebola question paramount in our minds it is very much a book of the moment. I did have to keep reminding myself that she wouldn’t have known about that while she was writing it. I really think you will respond to this, Susan. Do give it the benefit of the doubt.

  5. “This is supported by Mandel’s writing, which has a calmness and grace about it that encourages the reader to see the situation as one that has real grounds for hope built into it…So much of this type of fiction seems to have been written by those who think little of humanity. Mandel clearly believes that for the most part we are pretty decent individuals.”

    I just finished reading Michael Faber’s latest novel, The Book of Strange New Things, and I’ve found myself thinking something really similar to this while writing up my review. I tend to find dystopian/post-apocalyptic fiction pretty fascinating as a genre regardless, but I did feel, while reading Faber’s novel, that there was something quite refreshing about his subtler, more bittersweet tone.

    1. That’s one I’ve got on my radar as well, Tamsin. In fact I’m glad you’ve reminded me about it. I must go in search of a copy.

  6. Echoing other comments, I have been wary of the hype around this book, and also unsure that I wanted to read anything apocalyptic at this particular moment – but you have swayed me!

    1. I hadn’t realised it was so heavily hyped when I read it Lisa so I was able to come to it without the pressure of publicity. I’m so glad that was the case. I was able to appreciate it for the fine piece of writing that it is.

  7. What a fascinating review ! This book has been much promoted in the U.S., but I ignored it because, like you, I feel that I have read enough post-apocalyptic novels. Now I’ll look forward to reading this one, as soon as I finish California, ANOTHER post-apocalyptic literary novel that has been much-touted!

    1. Now there’s another book that doesn’t seem to have made it through the publicity channels in the UK, Kat. Perhaps because of the title? I shall now go in search of that as well. Who wrote it?

      1. The author is Edan Lepucki. A satirist, Stephen Colbert, who has a parody news show on cable TV (which I’ve never seen because I don’t have cable), challenged his audience to preorder Lepucki’s first novel, California, from independent bookstores and make it a best-seller. And it happened! it is a Hachette title, and Amazon has been blocking Hachette titles for months now due to an e-book feud with this publisher. The writing is good and I really had better finish it. But I looked at STation Eleven today and it looks VERY good. Didn’t buy it, but I’m sure I will eventually. I love the Lear stuff!

        1. The general impression I’m getting, Kat, from reading around a bit, is that you are probably reading these the right way round and that I might be a bit disappointed in ‘California’ after the Mandel. I think I’ll leave it a while and come back to it when ‘Station Eleven’ is less fresh in my mind.

  8. So much of this type of fiction seems to have been written by those who think little of humanity. Mandel clearly believes that for the most part we are pretty decent individuals.

    What a breathe of fresh air to read this and wonder if perhaps venturing into something catastrophic can show us that there is reason to have hope for humanity. I recently tried to read Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North and had to stop halfway because I just could not endure the things that were being inflicted on men by men during wartime in the POW camp. I instead opened Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth and within those pages recognised something closer to the humanity I want to believe in, however misguided they may have been. We are seriously lacking in literature that promotes hope, empathy, equanimity. Bravo Emily St John Mandel!

    1. I hope you feel the same way if you read the book, Claire. I have avoided the Flanagan and will continue to do so even if it should win the Booker. My father was a Far East POW during the war and although not on the Burma railway was treated in exactly the same way in the camps in Korea. I simply can’t face reading about it.

      1. This does sound rather wonderful and what a brilliant idea for the Shakesperean drama to really come into its own with its urgent closeness to plague. I see one of the tabloid newspapers has on its front page this morning a warning that Ebola virus will reach us in three weeks- can humanity withstand mass medis hysteria?

        1. Someone on the radio was making exactly the same point this morning, Ian. There will be no panic about Ebola unless the media decide there should be. I suspect it will depend a lot on what else there is going on at the same time.

  9. I’m on a long waiting list at the library for a turn to read this one and I’m really looking forward to it. It has been getting so much buzz I ignored it at first but then a couple people I trust read and praised it and now you have added your praises. I hope all the people in line before me hurry up!

    1. I am so glad I got to this before I knew there was any hype going on, Stefanie. I might never have picked it up had I known that.

  10. Hi, Alex. I agree with you that this book sounds like the perfect book for people to read who aren’t afraid of the drama attached to something like Ebola, though of course it might panic some folks with whatever resemblances there are. But not everyone is an ideal reader of every book. Which brings me to this question: is it likely that a very mature reader (boy) of the age of 11 1/2 would find something in this book accessible to him, or is it too mature for that age, do you think? He has seen a number of unusual movies with his father’s supervision, though no “racy” stuff or etc. But the apocalyptic and the topical aspects might interest him. What’s your opinion, especially as a teacher? Is it only for the university and college students and other adults?

    1. I have been giving this a lot of thought, SO, because at that age it is so dependent on the individual, they are maturing in such different ways. Eventually, I’ve decided that I would give it a shot. I don’t think there is anything in it that he isn’t likely to have encountered elsewhere and one of the good things about it is that Mandel at no point sets out to be ‘shocking’.

    1. And the Shakespeare references really matter and add depth to the point the author is making, Jeanne. That was what I really appreciated about it.

  11. Just to add one more voice in praise of this novel, I too was suspicious of the hype but loved it. In fact the only negative view I’ve come across is from my husband who kindly shared his thoughts in a rare appearance in the comments on my blog:
    But then I also enjoyed The Narrow Road to the Deep North which Claire found unreadable and probably wouldn’t work for you either, Alex, if you have close family connections.

    1. There is no way I can read The Narrow Road to the Deep North, even if it should win the Booker, and it is very hotly tipped in some quarters. My father was in a FEPOW camp and would never talk about their treatment. I miss him far too much to have the memories I cherish seared even by the very best of literature.

  12. I know Annabel loved this too. I’m wary of it because I can’t think of anything more frightening than everyone dying in a flu epidemic – I was scared enough during the swine flu days. So I don’t relish the though of the nightmares, but I’m half intrigued because the way a book is written makes all the difference.

    1. There is very little about the epidemic itself. She is much more interested in what happens in the run up to it and in the life of the survivors twenty years on. I would hate you to miss a novel as good as this, but I do understand your hesitation. I have just been saying to someone else that I am not going to be able to read ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ even if it should win the Booker next week because I can’t bear to read about the terrible thing that my father suffered in the FEPOW camp that he was in.

      1. I completely understand that. Andrew’s grandfather died under similar conditions and I don’t think any of us could bear to read too much about it.

  13. I read this post after reading about your flu shot which made for an eye-brow raising juxtaposition. I will put this one on my hold list at the library. Post apocalypse King Lear, sounds like fun to me.

    1. Indeed! I hadn’t thought about that. Fortunately, the effects seem to have worn off without my wiping out ninety-nine percent of the population!

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