Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
There’s an outbreak of the flu. The virus is airborne, highly contagious, and kills almost everyone who contracts it. Within a week, the world as we know it is gone. This is the premise underlying Station Eleven, the fourth novel from Emily St. John Mandel. Mandel takes a well-worn dystopian trope and re-imagines it in a decidedly literary fashion. Station Eleven dances back and forth in time, skipping from the period before the flu outbreak to the days, months and years after. The novel never settles too long on a single person, instead drawing loose connections between a wide range of characters, exploring themes from loneliness to the meaning of celebrity.
A large section of the novel is set 20 years after the outbreak. It follows a group of actors and musicians called the Travelling Symphony who move between small settlements, performing Shakespeare. Their motto is ‘survival is insufficient’, and they aim to bring a sense of joy back into the broken world. Their existence is relatively happy, peaceful and safe – until suddenly, one day, it isn’t.
The chapters featuring the Travelling Symphony are utterly gripping. The novel’s only weakness is that it abruptly moves from these tension-filled sections to the smaller, quieter stories set in the world before the outbreak. The pre-flu narratives are vastly overshadowed by the exciting conflicts Mandel sets in motion post-outbreak, where people are struggling to survive in a lawless world without electricity or modern resources.
Station Eleven has echoes of The Passage and The Walking Dead (minus the vampires and zombies). But Mandel always draws the novel back towards her particular concerns of survival, family, community, the enduring nature of literature, and what it means when our very global, connected world shrinks backwards: ‘No more Internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates …’ Smart, haunting and inventive, Station Eleven is highly recommended.
Nina Kenwood is the Digital Marketing Manager for Readings.