I first heard about Station Eleven when I was in a hotel room in Asheville, North Carolina. My lovely roomie, Michael Kindness of Books on the Nightstand, was reading it while we were at Booktopia. He was really enjoying it and it was fair to say that when he was seen with it in his company, or when it was heard he had it, there was almost a fever of anticipation and a buzz going through the many Booktopia attendees. I asked what it was about, as naturally Michael and I spent the entirety of our room sharing talking books, and was told it is about the start of the end of civilization and then the aftermath twenty years later. I think you could hear my eyes rolling around the whole of the U.S and I may have made some snarky comment along the lines of ‘oh, that’s not something that has been written about before is it?’ I came back to the UK and Station Eleven was soon being talked about everywhere, before swiftly becoming many people’s (lots of whom I trust immensely) favourite books of 2014. After someone, who will remain nameless, but who bloody loved this book sooooo much dared me to read it on the promise of £50 if I didn’t like it I decided it was time. Well, I never got the £50 because I loved it and was of course furious I hadn’t stolen Michael’s proof off him when I had the chance.
Station Eleven opens, aptly, at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto where well-known (more famous in his youth) actor Arthur is taking on the lead role in Shakespeare’s King Lear, that is until midway through the show he collapses and dies from what initially appears to be a heart attack. Yet within hours not only is Toronto feeling the beginnings of what seems to be a pandemic flu, the whole world is following suit. Through the eyes of a seemingly unlinked group of people we watch as flu turns out to be a deadly virus and the end of the world is coming.
Yet Station Eleven is not simply an end of the world novel, in fact bar the initial millions of deaths (99.9% of humans have died, he says casually) in the first few days we are soon sent to the year Twenty when those who somehow survived, or were immune, to the virus are carrying on in a new strange world. Here Mandel focuses in more particularly with Kirsten, part of The Symphony, travelling around North America performing Shakespeare as they head through the wilderness we see both a future that is much simpler (no phones, no television, no electrics) yet where humans living at their most base start to want powers of other kinds. All I will say is ‘cults’ and we know how fascinating, if utterly bizarre, some of those can be.
There was much to love and admire in Station Eleven. Firstly I found the fact that Mandel chooses to write about the very beginnings and then skip to twenty years after the end of civilisation, really interesting. Many authors would have gone full throttle with the horror of what could happen as the humanity falls and then deals with everything’s slowly breaking down and running out. Mandel however, bar a few of the tiniest flashbacks, leaves that all to our imagination which of course can be much worse. I wondered if she felt, like I did when I rolled my eyes back in Asheville like a wally, that maybe this is ground that has almost been covered too much, isn’t how and if people survive after that all the more interesting? It turns out it is.
Before we head to that I do want to mention how brilliantly she does write about the pandemic as it sweeps across continents. It is utterly bloody terrifying as it could all happen so easily, especially if we think what happened with Ebola recently, all it takes is the virus to get on a few plans with a few people and off it spreads. I don’t suggest reading this book on a plane next to anyone with a cold. I thought this also had a real emotive weight on several occasions, with particular reference for those who die not long after including one leading-ish character far from their loved ones and indeed surrounded by strangers (who I won’t name, but I wept) as well as those people who we only see the merest glances of through survivor’s eyes.
“You told me to call you if there was ever a real epidemic?”
“We’ve admitted over two hundred flu patients since this morning,” Hua said. “A hundred and sixty in the past three hours. Fifteen 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.” It wasn’t only exhaustion, Jeevan realised, Hua was afraid.
Jeevan pulled the bell cord and made his way to the rear door. He found himself glancing at the other passengers. The young woman with groceries, the man in the business suit playing a game on his cell phone, the elderly couple conversing quietly in Hindi. Had any of them come from the airport? He was aware of all of them breathing around him.
In the year Twenty things are no less emotive or terrifying, just in a very different way. People who have survived the pandemic might die simply treading on a rusty nail as there is no treatment. People are also suffering as with no police/official control/government some lesser individuals see this as a way to form their own controls be it husbands and their behaviour to wives, criminals and murderers lingering just out of eye sight ready and waiting, or self appointed rulers ready to spread wisdom from the past they use old documents and twist the words of or simply make them up themselves. We watch the way someone’s nature, be it good or bad, can come to the fore.
It is interesting to read how the ripples of the past end up affecting the future in ways unseen. Throughout Station Eleven Mandel seems to use it to talk about many things. There is fame and why people become so obsessed with it, we have the fame (or the fading of it) for Arthur in the past, and the seeming need for infamy of ‘The Prophet’ in the future. We look at what truly lasts after the world is ravaged, yes there are aeroplanes and cars and all those sorts of things yet without power they become useless, what really become valuable are documents, words, trinkets, memories and history, even pop culture is celebrated for some of the positive attributes is has in a desolate future.
We stand it because we were younger than you were when everything ended, Kirsten thought, but not young enough to remember nothing at all. Because there isn’t much time left, because all the roofs are collapsing now and soon none of the old buildings will be safe. Because we are always looking for the former world, before all the traces of the former world are gone.
I really like books with layers and Station Eleven has those in bounds. On one level it is just a fast paced and fascinating look at the end of one civilisation and potential beginning of another. There is plague, there is murder, there are cults, there are loves lost and found. There’s also a lot going on under that; we are reminded how vapid celebrity culture can be and yet how obsessed we can become with the famous on our many devices, rather than getting to know a neighbour; the importance of words and culture; how important kindness is. I could go on, the power of all of these and more subtly resonates through the book. The most powerful thing of all though is hope, especially in other people and their choices to be good. That was the message I was left with as I left a world that seemed like the future yet reminded me to look away from all my screens and remember a simpler past – where books ruled.
If you would like to hear Emily St John Mandel talk more about Station Eleven then you can hear her chatting to me (I know, how lucky was I) here on this episode of You Wrote The Book. I would love to hear your thoughts on Station Eleven, a spectrum of which you can see here on Adventures with Words, Tomcat in the Redroom, Mookse and the Gripes and Lonesome Reader. I would also love to know which of Emily’s previous three books you have read (as I now have them all) and what you made of those?