Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel opens at the onset of an outbreak of a virulent flu. In a matter of weeks, it will quickly decimate the world’s population. In its wake is a place that is disconnected, desperate and dangerous, with small communities of people trying to make their way in this brave new world.
The book fast forwards to about fifteen years later. Electricity and water are relics of the past, and kids have now grown up with this being the only world they know. The narrative focuses on a group of performers who travel from community to community in an attempt to bring some meaning to their now unrecognizable lives. This group, known as the Traveling Symphony, arrives at a town expecting to find two former members of their group that had previously decided to stay there. Instead, the disquieting little community is now run by a cult-like leader referred to as the Prophet. A young girl attempting to escape the town provides a clue to where the missing symphony members might be, a place called the Museum of Civilization. They don’t known what they’ll find there or if it even exists, but the group heads off in search anyway.
A second intertwined narrative explores the life of a famous actor, Arthur Leander, who one of the performers has taken up a hobby of collecting mementos about. Leander’s first wife is the author of a comic called Station Eleven.
It is a post-apocalyptic tale, but a surprisingly hopeful one, a story of rebuilding and putting the pieces back together again. As the characters converge upon the Museum, the novel explores the many ways groups of people create patchwork societies and norms to help them hobble together something resembling civilization.
Now, admittedly, I’m a sucker for post-apocalyptic tales in general, especially those more firmly rooted in reality. But this one especially struck a chord with me. It’s not particularly fancy or edgy, and there are very little post-modernist literary devices or gimmicks involved. Instead, it’s a well-paced, quickly moving but thoughtful novel that unravels evenly to reveal a story about society and individuals attempting to rebuild a ruined world.
As the story moves forward, it adds dimensions and layers to a well-conceived vision of how this could look. Of course, it’s a short book so it’s not an all-encompassing, epic type of world we’re seeing here. Instead, it’s told from the perspective of a few characters and only hints at how the rest of the world is getting along.
Station Eleven the type of book that I am generally inclined to recommend to other people, especially casual readers. The subject matter — a realistic dystopia and a musing on civilization and human nature is something most people can get into. It’s accessible, but substantive. And its hopeful, curious and gently lyrical tone make it easily enjoyable to read. 4.5/5.