BWW Review: STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel
"First we only want to be seen, but once we're seen, that's not enough anymore. After that, we want to be remembered."
~Emily St. John Mandel, STATION ELEVEN
There is so much to say about STATION ELEVEN, and so little that can be shared without revealing spoilers. STATION ELEVEN is a book that unfurls slowly, one that introduces you to a multitude of characters and slips all of the puzzle pieces together later. It's interesting that Erin Morgenstern blurbed the novel because in her own debut, THE NIGHT CIRCUS, she also has a way of unfurling the story to move it along. Slowly, softly, but with great impact.
As the novel opens, we are introduced to an actor named Arthur Leander. Within a couple of pages, Arthur will die onstage from a heart attack at the end of King Lear. The little girl watching him from the wings, Kirsten Raymonde, will survive the oncoming plague and grow up working with a traveling theater troupe called the Traveling Symphony. A man in the audience, Jeevan Chaudhary, will attempt to resuscitate the fallen actor, and readers will later learn of his connections to Arthur. Arthur's best friend, Clark Thompson, is asked to inform Arthur's ex-wives and his small son of his passing because he has no one close in his life. All of these people are introduced briefly; their lives will become more important later as the novel progresses and we see some of their POVs. Through many of these various characters, we see the world fall, people succumb to illness and die, people carving out a new existence. Despite his brief introduction, Arthur Leander connects so much of this novel in ways that most characters will never know or understanding. Reading the individual fragments as the author weaves the past and present together make the reader privy to all this knowledge and more.
Right after Arthur Leander dies, 99% of the world dies. The Georgia Flu is brought to the US from a Russian flight of passengers. Within 48 hours of being exposed to the Flu, the exposed will contract it and die. Only a lucky 1% of the population will survive this international disaster. The majority of STATION ELEVEN either takes place twenty years after the collapse of civilization, or in the period leading up to the collapse. The focus isn't on anarchy and survival, as in novels such as THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy. It is about surviving and building a new world, of living and recovering. A quote from Star Trek is emblazoned on the Traveling Symphony's caravan: "Survival is insufficient." This quote encompasses so much of the way humanity is now.
STATION ELEVEN could be called speculative fiction, or post-apocalyptic fiction. It details the end of civilization in a straight-forward, unflinching manner. The novel can, at time, weigh readers down. The end is depressing, and when characters don't make it, or their loved ones don't, it's tragic. Mandel also has a fantastic way of ending chapters that leave readers with a delicious sense of foreboding. After finishing STATION ELEVEN, I wanted to immediately read something light and happy because I couldn't handle anymore darkness. At the same time, STATION ELEVEN is also built on hope. Humanity will survive. It will be altered, but the goodness in people will allow for us to recover and come together in new ways. This sense of hope gets readers to the end. All is not forsaken.
I loved the language and prose of STATION ELEVEN, and want to read more novels from Mandel moving forward. The way she thought about things that would no longer function, or the way small moments can have rippling repercussions far down the road are exemplary. At the same time, this might not have been the best time of year to read it. With all the media coverage of the current flu season, it's easy to become very paranoid. I'm still half in the world of STATION ELEVEN, which I only finished reading this past weekend. While, on the surface, I know that none of this equates to the Georgia Flu, the possibilities are in the air. Part of the horror in STATION ELEVEN is the truth that something like this could one day happen. I like to think that if it does, humanity will bounce back and come together over time. STATION ELEVEN gives me that hope for the potential future.
STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel was published on September 9, 2014 from Knopf // Random House.