Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, for all intents and purposes, should be destined for failure. It is a futuristic, dystopian novel marketed to contemporary fiction readers rather than the typical sci-fi audience for such things. It features numerous characters, but no through plotline. Structurally, the timeline is all over the place, resulting in a book which has no real “ending.” Yet, somehow, Emily St. John Mandel has fashioned Station Eleven into one of the most impressive and gripping novels of the season.
Even before Station Eleven was published, Emily St. John Mandel had a cult following based on her previous novels. With the release of this new masterpiece, she is now destined for many award wins and mainstream recognition from both fans and her peers.
Station Eleven is a story of before and after. The novel starts with a performance of Shakespeare’s King Lear, in which the lead actor tragically dies during the show. Coincidentally, this also happens to be the same night cataclysmic disease begins to wreak havoc on the world’s population. A particularly virulent strain of the flu – named the Georgia Flu after the location of origin, the province of Georgia near Russia – proceeds to bring death to all who contract it, eventually decimating Earth’s population. The novel also deals with a time in the future when the limited number of people who were able to avoid the flu struggle to survive in a new, harsh landscape.
While this all sounds fairly straight-forward, Emily St. John Mandel’s method for telling these tales is anything but. The novel is broken into sections which flash back and forth through time. Actions that take place in one timeline call forth memories of past events. Characters tell other characters stories of what happened before while simultaneously relaying their own path to the current location. This all may sound like a mixed-up hodgepodge, but Mandel manages to transport the reader to each of the needed storyline locations without any muddled confusion.
She does this by allowing readers to latch on to several characters – some whom are only in the before or after sections, and a few who are in both. One of the characters who is in both settings is Kirsten. Kirsten was a child actor in the King Lear performance and after the devastation of the flu, she has found herself as a member of the Traveling Symphony. The Symphony is actually a combination theater troupe and orchestra which makes its way across the wasteland performing music and Shakespeare nightly for any audience they can find.
If there is any main plot to be discerned from the various vignettes which constitute the novel, it would likely be the Symphony’s journey from town to town, and ultimately, to the Museum of Civilization. This museum is located in a former airport where survivors are now living. This is only a very small part of the novel, but it is an important part. The lack of plot does not mean that nothing happens, it simply is the unique technique used by the author to tell the tale. Each of the smaller storyline sections have rising and falling action, developing characters and resolution – and if readers pay attention, many of the themes are foreshadowed throughout.
The title, Station Eleven, comes from a graphic novel one of the characters creates and many of the other characters read or encounter over the course of the book. Within this fictional graphic comic lie many important clues to Mandel’s ultimate goals in writing the novel. The simplicity of Emily St. John Mandel’s writing style belies the complexity of purpose. So complex is Station Eleven that every reader will come away with something different upon finishing the novel. In fact, I read the book twice to make sure that it was as good as I thought it was the first time –Spoiler Alert: it was – and both times I took away something different after turning the final pages.
The messages within the novel may appear to be trite and Pollyanna-ish – things like: don’t sleepwalk through life; love your family and tell them often; avoid obsessing over things, technology, and power; and take nothing for granted – but the weight of the book resides in the elegiac prose Emily St. John Mandel utilizes to tell this haunting story. There is a reason that Station Eleven is racking up award nominations and that is the same reason readers need to experience this book for themselves.
_____________________________________________________________________ Disclaimer: A print galley of this title was provided to BOLO Books by the publisher (at BookExpo America). No review was promised and the above is an unbiased review of the novel.