STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel
Days of Future Past
Emily St. John Mandel’s work of post-apocalyptic fiction satisfies and challenges by playing around with characters and timeframes, and her powerful writing speeds the book on its way brilliantly.
‘There is too much world’, or so says Czeslaw Milosz in the epigraph to Emily St. John Mandel’s exploration of art, memory, the past and the human frailties that unite us all. Given this, Station Eleven might be seen as a way to compress the world or somehow shrink it down in scope to make it more comprehensible.
Certainly based on the events of the beginning of this intelligent novel, Mandel has her reasons. Coinciding with famous actor Arthur Leander’s first performance in King Lear in Toronto, a deadly virus strikes that wipes out most of the world’s population. An atmosphere of dread and utter helplessness is cannily created before the storyline is left tantalisingly hanging, with one character (in a Schrödinger-esque scenario) potentially either alive or dead.
We then jump forward twenty years and find ourselves with The Travelling Symphony, a group of actors and musicians who have been on the road since ‘the end of the world’, attempting to bring hope and joy to the towns they pass through. There is no electricity, with every neighbourhood a dilapidated, poverty-ridden shadow of what it was. A new religious group has sprung up, trying to convert people to fanatical new ideas. Violence is rife. And yet, amidst it all, reminders of the past seep in. Kirsten, the novel’s main protagonist, a child in Leander’s entourage at the beginning of the story, is constantly reflecting on that past, and has a few important kernels of it hidden away in her personal belongings herself.
Occasionally this is interspersed with flashbacks to the early lives of Arthur Leander, his first wife and others who were all linked before society fell apart, done very cleverly at opportune moments in the book. The dreamlike quality of these sections, which exist as though in their own world, untouched by time, trying to prevent the present merely by existing, is captivating.
Indeed Mandel’s evocation of an old world slipping away and a new one beginning is a pleasure to read. As someone who is a passionate believer in the power of the arts, it’s heartening to see that, even in this shattered world, art persists. Be it in snatches of a conversation, the panels of a comic book, fragments of an interview, or a long-lost artefact which triggers old memories, the past is never truly dead, and in this novel, art is the means of making that so. By the end of the novel, art is proven to be closely intertwined with the lives of many of the characters, and is shown as something all people can come to and find solace in when lost.
It is in realising the power of art that Mandel also presents us with the haunting and saddening idea that all the characters, be they ‘good’ or ‘bad’, are searching for the same thing, but crucially, using different means. When things go bad there is darkness among people, Mandel tells us, but there’s always enough goodness to shut it out – if only just.
It’s certainly been a long time since I so delighted in flicking back and forth to pick up on all the clever references an author has left for the reader to discover. There are many mysteries here, which Mandel revels in leaving at our feet and then circling back to solve for us. As to what Station Eleven actually is – you’ll have to find that out for yourself. But certainly, with everything on show in this novel, Mandel is a keeper, and we’d best watch out for her. There’s real beauty and depth in this novel, and having that alongside well-drawn characters is rare. It’s the end of the world as we know it, but not quite as we know it, and that’s an achievement in itself. In its own quiet but powerful way, Station Eleven soars.