I think we’re all a little obsessed with the end of the world. How will it happen? Will Earth cease to exist? Will humans become extinct? Will some of us roam a ruined earth, struggling to survive in a never-ending wasteland? Will we rebuild and return to a world of technology, medicine and space travel? Which species will become the next intelligent beings to take over the role humans once played? Will aliens bring about the end of the world, or will humankind simply destroy itself? Hypothetical situations are endless.
Emily St. John Mandel takes one of these scenarios and makes it entirely believable in her fourth novel, Station Eleven. Days before the world ends, a ridiculously famous actor, a young girl and a paparazzo-turned-EMT tragically meet onstage at a production of King Lear. Even as their lives end or change in ways they never could have imagined, a trajectory is being set; one that will send ripples far into the future.Over the next few days, 99.9% of the world’s population is wiped out by a flu pandemic. Power structures crumble, civilization collapses and those who are unlucky enough to survive are hurtled back to the dark ages.
This is the kind of book that you have to think about when you’re done with it. It’s haunting; it’s beautiful and it’s hard to put down. I felt a keen sense of loss when I closed the book after reading the final page. The story is told through many voices, and it covers events that happened decades before the world collapsed all the way through Year Twenty in the present, post-apocalyptic world.
The story follows Kirsten, a Shakespearean actress with the Traveling Symphony who barely remembers anything about the world before the flu but does recall a famous actor dying onstage as a man from the front row rushes to help. Javeen is a paparazzo turned journalist turned aspiring-EMT when he jumps onstage in Toronto to try to save a dying man before holing up in his brother’s apartment to wait out the end of the world. Arthur Leander is a famous actor who never meant to fall in love and marry multiple times, dying as he lived: alone. The prophet leads a dangerous cult, insisting that his followers were chosen by God to usher in a new era. No matter that he kills anyone who disagrees with him or that he takes multiple young girls as his wives. At first, I thought St. John Mandel might be setting up these characters and plot for a big twist. She wasn’t, and I’m glad. The story is enough; there doesn’t need to be a huge twist or unexpected reveal. Rather, the subtle mysteries that surface early on are solved naturally throughout the novel.
Even if this book wasn’t so wonderfully written, it’d be a winner. It features traveling musicians as they trek through the territories that once were Michigan. TV, movies and radio entertainment may all be gone, but Star Trek quotes survive. “Survival is insufficient,” is the motto of the Traveling Symphony. Some of the first institutions to pop up in the post-apocalyptic world are museums and libraries. Even if they will never get to experience traveling by car, listening to music on an iPhone or typing a letter on a computer, the people in this new world collect their memories physically in homemade museums and verbally in libraries.
Station Eleven was a 2014 National Book Award Finalist, and it made a number of 2014 “Best of” lists. Among so many post-apocalyptic novels, Station Eleven definitely stands out. Pick up a copy from CPL today and be sure to leave us a comment with your opinion of it.