“So there’s this initial group of patients – the Moscow passengers. Then, this afternoon, a new patient comes in. Same symptoms, but this one wasn’t on the flight. This one’s just an employee at the airport.”
“I’m not sure what you’re – “
“A gate agent,” Wa said. “I’m saying his only contact with the other patients was speaking with one of them about where to board the hotel shuttle.”
“Oh,” Gevan said. “That sounds bad.” The streetcar was still trapped behind the stopped car. “So I guess you’re working late tonight.”
“You remember the SARS epidemic?” Wa asked. “That conversation we had?”
“I remember calling you from Los Angeles when I heard your hospital was quarantined, but I don’t remember what I said.”
“You were freaked out. I had to talk you down.”
“Okay, I guess I do remember that. But look, in my defense they made it sound pretty -“
“You told me to call you if there was ever a real epidemic.”
“We’ve admitted over 200 flu patients since this morning,” Wa said. “160 in the past three hours. 15 of them have died. The ER’s full of new cases. We’ve got beds parked in hallways. Health Canada’s about to make an announcement.”
–Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Station Eleven is a post-apocalyptic novel about the fall of modern culture after a highly contagious strain of the flu kills off 99% of humanity. The novel begins on the first night of the epidemic, when a Hollywood actor named Arthur Leander dies of a heart attack in the middle of a performance of King Lear. The plot of the novel follows the end of society and the beginning of the post-apocalypse world from the perspective of characters who all had ties to Arthur while he was still alive – Kirsten, a child actress who was backstage at the moment of Arthur’s collapse; Jeevan, the audience member who attempted CPR to bring him back; Clark, Arthur’s long-time friend; Miranda, Arthur’s first wife; and others who pass in and out of the narrative as it leaps to moments before and after the pandemic, showing glimpses of each life as it is profoundly changed by the death across the globe.
The bulk of Station Eleven focuses on individual character development, rather than a single overarching plot, and while certain themes appear in different characters’ stories (a paperweight, the graphic novels named Station Eleven for which the book is named, a violent man named the Prophet), the stories still felt loosely grouped together rather than feeling strongly cohesive. I realized early on that I needed to adjust my expectations for this novel, but once I did so, it felt intimate and refreshingly real. Some plots were more clear than others – Kristen, for example, joined a traveling theater group as an adult after the apocalypse. Their travels through various towns, and their abrupt clashes with a cult leader called The Prophet were predictable but provided a coherent thread for readers to follow while the rest of the novel leaped back and forth in time. Jeevan’s plot provided some of the largest leaps in time, covering Arthur’s death, to Jeevan’s time as an entertainment news reporter as he watched Arthur’s first marriage devolve, to Jeevan’s foresight during the early days of the pandemic. Clark’s story thread came in rather late in the novel, but had some of my favorite scenes, as a large, protected population watched from a safe distance as the rest of the world was destroyed from the virus.
This novel is first and foremost a story about people, the relationships they form and dissolve, and the ways they overcome their problems or collapse beneath them, and I do feel that the character development in Station Eleven was superb. While there were a few flat secondary characters, all of the primary characters felt keenly real to me, with realistic strengths and weaknesses. Arthur’s first wife Miranda seemed particularly well-developed to me: she is an artist who wants first and foremost to feel financially stable. Early in the novel she starts working in a corporate office where she finds that she thrives in her serene position as office assistant. Again and again, Miranda states that she pursues art for the sake of art, does not need anyone else to like it for it to be worthwhile, and is not even certain she will show it to anyone when it is finished, if she even intends to finish it at all. Jeevan also is a fascinating character, addressing the real value of work – before the flu pandemic, Jeevan has experimented with several different careers, never quite feeling like he was going something that felt worthwhile and meaningful to him. It only as the world is collapsing around him that he starts to really find a place for himself.
One of the things that struck me the most about Station Eleven is how lovely the writing is – even when the world is dying, the author still manages to craft a beautiful setting and build tender relationships between the characters. One of my favorite moments in the novel was a scene between Arthur’s first wife Miranda (the current wife in the scene) and his second wife Elizabeth (his lover at that moment). Miranda and Elizabeth have a moment alone together of complete clarity – they know who they are to Arthur and who they are about to be, and rather than the high drama of hatred or fighting, they are both accepting. It really showed who they were as characters, that they could each have compassion for the other. It also was a stellar sample of the focus of the book as a whole.
In all, I’ll give Station Eleven a 9 out of 10. There is a lot to like – strong characters, some exciting scenes in a post-apocalyptic world, and a lot to consider about where we place our priorities in our fragile modern world. Most readers would enjoy this one, as long as they aren’t opposed to speculative fiction.