Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

An incomplete list:

No more diving into pools of chlorinated water.
No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights.
No more trains running under the surface of cities.
No more cities.
No more flight.
No more Internet.
No more towns glimpsed from the sky through airplane windows.
No more countries, all borders unmanned.

Day One
The Georgia Flu explodes over the surface of the earth like a neutron bomb. News reports put the mortality rate at over 99%.

Week Two
Civilisation has crumbled.

Year Twenty
A band of actors and musicians called the Travelling Symphony move through their territories performing concerts and Shakespeare to the settlements that have grown up there. Twenty years after the pandemic, life feels relatively safe. But now a new danger looms, and he threatens the hopeful world every survivor has tried to rebuild.

The first thing that struck me about Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel was its stunning cover design. With a palette of white, grey, black and pink, a deer stands out against an empty cityscape, gradually being swallowed by trees, grass and curling vines. Nathan Burton, the designer of the UK cover, has done a fantastic job creating a really eye-catching cover which hints at disaster but also at new life. And that’s one of the things that really stood out as I picked up the book and started to read.

We open with one of the key characters, Jeevan, a former paparazzo and paramedic-in-training, who is watching a production of King Lear starring an old quarry, the famous actor Arthur Leander, whose star has begun to wane. Towards the end of the production, Arthur suffers a heart attack and Jeevan finds himself at first assisting and then ushered out into the snowy night with the rest of the audience. It’s then that he receives a phone call from a doctor at the local hospital, warning him that the Georgia Flu may be more serious than anyone has realised. From this beginning, we are introduced to a group of people whose lives are the subject of a narrative that weaves from the present – Day One – back into the past lives of Arthur, his first wife Miranda, Arthur’s friend Clark, child actress Kirsten, and into the future too, Year Twenty, to discover how past events and relationships can ripple forward in unexpected ways.

Unlike many dystopian or apocalyptic novels I’ve read, Station Eleven stands out from the crowd in so many ways. The focus here is not on the days immediately following the disaster, or on the horror of the Georgia Flu. Instead, Mandel writes about life, community and – ultimately – hope, in beautiful, literary prose that evokes different settings and characters with stunning clarity. She doesn’t shy away from feelings of loss, grief or the difficult choices that her cast are forced to make in order to survive, but neither does she dwell on these things. Rather, there is a drive and a forward impetus throughout Station Eleven as the Travelling Symphony head towards the near-legendary Museum of Civilisation, and its characters adapt, sometimes reluctantly, to their new lives. There’s also an unusual playfulness, surprising given the severity of the disaster that has taken place, and yet totally understandable for anyone with a dark sense of humour. I especially enjoyed the pop culture references to Star Trek and pop music.

There are other themes here too; of course, there’s a discussion about the way we’re currently so interconnected, globally. We think nothing of using phones, the internet, or air travel, but in fact all these things could disappear in just a few days without the people working to keep these systems running. Perhaps we should not take them for granted.

There’s also a conversation taking place within the novel about fame, its real value and its effect on those people in, and around, the spotlight. While Arthur is in some ways at the centre of the novel, his legacy after Day One is through his direct impact on the people around him, rather than through his art. In fact, Miranda’s personal project, a comic book series called ‘Doctor Eleven’, has far more resonance. When I spoke to Emily recently, she said she would love to create those comics for real, so budding artists, get in touch!

This really is an extraordinary novel. Reading it was a roller coaster; Mandel takes us from the creeping chill of inevitable illness and death, via tense domestic drama and futuristic conflict, to the possibility of salvation and survival through human ingenuity and cooperation. Throughout, the electric quality of prose never falters.  It’s no surprise that the novel is a finalist in the Fiction Category of the American National Book Award. Emily certainly has my vote.

Station Eleven is now out in hardback from Picador, at £12.99
Thank you to Picador, for providing an advanced reading copy for this review.


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