Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is an extraordinary novel depicting a shattered, post- apocalyptic world in which all the conveniences and safety valves of modern society have disappeared.

A global pandemic has killed off over 99% of the human population. The survivors cluster together in small, isolated groups in abandoned buildings. They learn to function without electricity and running water. They adjust and make compromises in their daily existence. Survival frequently depends on kill or be killed. Some are able to adjust better than others. Some turn to music and theatre as a refuge, performing in make-shift venues as the Traveling Symphony. Some join a violent cult headed by a deranged, self-proclaimed prophet. And others walk off into the wilderness, never to be heard from or seen again.

Emily St. John Mandel plunges the reader in a terrifying world where social obligations, morality, and the rule of law have totally collapsed. She structures her novel around flashbacks and flash forwards in a series of vignettes with leaps in time in which the life that used to be constantly compares with the life that is now. She introduces her characters in seemingly disjointed threads—Arthur Leander, an actor who dies on the stage while performing King Lear; a young girl who plays Cordelia; a former journalist turned paramedic in the audience who springs to action to perform CPR on Leander; Leander’s first wife; and Leander’s closest friend.

Through the vignettes, we learn about the characters and their lives before and after the pandemic. Leander appears intermittently throughout the vignettes as the connecting glue. The characters are also linked by a joint memory or an object from the past—a snow globe, a tattered comic book, a magazine, a photograph. In this way, St. John Mandel skillfully ties the threads together, connecting one character with another, connecting the past with the present in a vibrant tapestry.

Life in this post-apocalyptic universe is harsh and dangerous. The characters cling to their memories of loved ones. They stock a “museum of civilization” with objects from the past. They share a cultural history. They talk of electricity, heating, cooling, airplanes, running water, etc. to post-apocalypse children. They buoy their spirits with music and poetry and Shakespeare. They form ties with one another to survive and thrive. When families and loved ones are lost, when former relationships have vanished, new relationships must be forged, new communities must be developed, and new meaning must be created. Choices are made, and the choices the characters make define them and determine how they will operate in this post-apocalypse world. Ultimately what remains in a universe bereft of all the trappings of civilization is the resilience of the human spirit.

Emily St. John Mandel has written a stunning novel. The back and forth leaps in time, the pacing, the diction, the consistency of tone, the strong characterization, the vivid imagery, the shard memories, and the use of telling detail all combine to make this a complex, compelling, and thrilling read.

Highly recommended.

AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review