The night the fatal Georgia Flu arrives in Toronto, fading movie star Arthur Leander has a heart attack on stage performing the title role in King Lear. Jeevan, a paramedic trainee, rushes to the actor’s aid but it is too late to save him. Kirsten, a young child actress in the production, watches fearful from the wings of the stage. So begins the compelling and surprising Station Eleven. An apocalyptic novel that moves back and forth in time, Station Eleven is a layered and entertaining story about what matters most before the world ends…and after.
I read the book knowing it was highly acclaimed but otherwise next to nothing about the actual plot. This caused me to have to continuously readjust my perception of the novel and what it was trying to accomplish. I think when you don’t know what it’s about, and the tone it is going to take, the experience can be a bit difficult but ultimately more rewarding for the reader.
That fateful winter night ends up being the lynchpin that the characters or the story pivot around, whether they are aware of it or not. The first few chapters focus on Jeevan as he ultimately holes up in his brother’s apartment to ride out the extremely fast moving epidemic. The structure of the book reminded me a lot of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks. The book moves back and forth through time and characters slowly revealing how the main characters connect together based on their connection with Arthur and that fateful night.
The title Station Eleven refers to an amateur comic book that Arthur’s first wife, Miranda, works on in her spare time. In the comic, Dr. Eleven and his crew are hurtling through space on a planet sized space-station, constantly in conflict with denizens of the Undersea, a resistance force that just wants to return to Earth. The metaphor of the comic perfectly parallels the new reality of life on Earth after the Georgia Flu obliterates mankind. How the survivors (about .01% of the population) cope and adjust to this new reality is the core of the book with many just wanting to return thing to how they were before and others seeing an opportunity to form new societies and rules.
At less than 350 pages Station Eleven is a short book. The sacrifice that the short length demands is that I didn’t connect on an emotional level the way I thought I would. I cared about what was going on and worried who would survive but when the book reveals the identity of the story’s sorta bad guy, I just went “Well, yeah.” I didn’t care. Some of this is attributed to the way Emily St. John Mandel presents the narrative. While reading I felt like there was a journalistic barrier up between writer and reader and the writing came off as somewhat cold. Well written and evocative, but a bit cold nonetheless.
In Station Eleven, St. John Mandel has a lot to say about the world we live in now and its emphasis on technology and experiences rather than making human connections. The twisting narrative through time and location works well keeping the reader interested and the read is a fast one. If you like apocalyptic stories but are looking for more philosophical insight than the norm you should really enjoy Station Eleven.