Station Eleven sparked my imagination like no book had for a long time. This post-apocalyptic novel presents a vivid and perfectly created world: a setting that is deeply atmospheric, both chilling and beautiful. It has been categorised as science fiction but I would say it is a dystopian novel related to the works of Cormac McCarthy and J.G. Ballard. I think Emily St John Mandel resembles Ballard in her visual imagination and ability to portray a civilisation breaking down, although Station Eleven presents a much less bleak and cynical view of human nature and society than Ballard’s works.
The novel opens when a famous actor, Arthur, collapses and dies on stage playing King Lear in a theatre in Toronto. At around the same time a flu pandemic begins to spread throughout the world, killing the majority of the world’s population and causing a complete breakdown of the modern, technologically advanced society we know. The novel then moves forward twenty years to follow Kirsten, who was a child actress on stage with Arthur in the production of King Lear and is now a member of the Travelling Symphony, a band of actors and musicians performing Shakespeare plays in the settlements that have developed following the pandemic. The novel also follows various other characters, all connected with Arthur in some way, and mixes present-day events with flashbacks to their lives before the collapse.
I found Station Eleven completely absorbing and very inventive. Set in a recognisable, everyday world, the effects of the pandemic are plausible and realistic. The pandemic is gripping and frightening to read about, but this section is relatively short. The main action of the novel, set twenty years later, has a distinctive tone of nostalgia for the world we live in now, which I found interesting. The characters longingly remember everyday objects and technology that most of us take for granted. St John Mandel also explores how this nostalgia affects different generations. Children born after the collapse know nothing else and consider descriptions of, for example, electricity as incredible fairy stories. Alternatively, they show no interest at all. The book asks if those who are older adults and spent most of their lives in the pre-pandemic world are more or less fortunate, as they have lost more but have a greater store of memories to recall. Kirsten falls somewhere in between, as she was eight years old and therefore has only a few, almost dream-like, memories. I wondered if this was the most difficult position to be in, as Kirsten and her friend are constantly searching through abandoned buildings trying to find tokens of civilisation, such as books half-remembered from childhood or magazine photos of Arthur.
In this novel, material objects are repositories of memory. Trivial objects attain an intense significance to people once they become scarce. One of the older characters sets up a Museum of Civilisation, in which items such as laptops, phones, shoes and newspapers are preserved. The importance of the museum is to keep the memory of the former world alive, both for those who knew it and those who never experienced it. The book has an elegiac tone and creates a distance from the present-day world that made me see it as more precarious.
In fact, the novel really succeeded in making me imagine what it would be like to live in a world where modern civilisation had disappeared. It is always implicit in the novel that it would be impossible to communicate with anyone elsewhere in the world, and that without the internet or even a postal service, you would never know what had happened to people you were separated from at the time of the pandemic. I think for me this is the most striking aspect of this imagined world.
Although it is disturbing, I felt the novel also imagines a certain beauty in a post-technological age, describing how, following the pandemic, plants and animals start to encroach on the built environment humans had created, or how the stars appear much brighter at night. It creates parallels with the Shakespearean age, when plague frequently swept through London, and makes it seem appropriate that the Travelling Symphony perform only Shakespeare plays to their audiences. Nevertheless, I agree with other reviews I have read that it is strange that no one seems to create any new art or music after the collapse. I don’t know if this is a deliberate decision by the author, to show that people would concentrate on survival to such an extent that the creation of art would be an impossibility. Another unexpected aspect of this world is that traditional religion seems to be almost entirely absent, and in its place new cults have emerged in certain settlements. Again, the novel never mentions traditional religion so I wondered if its disappearance was something the author felt would be inevitable in these circumstances.
The post-pandemic world begins as a violent and dangerous place in which many people are killed and those who survive are traumatised. However the novel keeps returning to the fact that, after twenty years, the world is becoming kinder and more civilised again. I felt that the author sees civilisation as a strong, perhaps innate, human impulse that can survive almost anything. Even with the limited resources they have, people start newspapers, libraries and, of course, the theatre of the Travelling Symphony. I don’t describe it well but in the novel it is a very moving and powerful theme. There is almost the sense that a new cycle of history is starting, which will rebuild what has been lost.
Perhaps because there was such a large cast of characters, some were memorable, while others, such as Kirsten’s friends in the Travelling Symphony, weren’t particularly distinctive. I felt sympathetic towards Kirsten, who is perhaps the character the reader identifies with and follows the most. Jeevan, a paparazzo who photographs Arthur, was one of my favourite characters, as I found him likeable and the scenes involving his brother Frank moving. I also found Clark, Arthur’s friend, very sympathetic. Although I enjoyed the flashback parts of the novel, I never particularly grasped what everyone saw in Arthur and was unsure whether he was powerful enough as the central pivot for all the other characters. To me, Miranda was one of the most interesting characters, an artist and very private person who I felt prioritised her art and internal, imaginative life above everything else, organising her existence so she could concentrate on the creation of her new world.
Overall, I would recommend Station Eleven as a beautiful and unsettling novel that lives in the memory long after reading.