Book Review by MICHAEL ARRUDA
Apocalyptic stories seem to be the rage these days. Whether it be the threat of zombies or the world running out of food, the world as we know it is over and every day folks like us have to adapt and fight to survive.
In Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, it’s a deadly flu epidemic which does the trick, wiping out most of all of humanity, leaving only a few survivors to carry on. That being said, Station Eleven is much more than just an apocalyptic story— much more. It’s a literary novel written with flawless prose by author Emily St. John Mandel that tells its story so creatively you’ll forget you’re reading a science fiction tale because it all comes to life so genuinely.
St. John Mandel weaves her way through multiple storylines so effortlessly reading her prose is like enjoying a fine meal. Every bite is a treat. Indeed, for a story that jumps back and forth through time, includes as one of its main characters a person who dies in the opening pages, it’s amazingly easy to follow and not confusing in the least. I loved every minute of Station Eleven and frankly didn’t want the book to end. I wanted to keep reading and find out what happened to these characters next.
Famous film star Arthur Leander suffers a heart attack while performing Shakespeare’s King Lear on stages. Sitting in the front row is a young man Jeevan Chaudhary who has been studying to be a paramedic, and he leaps onto the stage in order to perform CPR on Leander, but his efforts fail and Leander dies. Watching this awful scene is child actress Kirsten Raymonde, who during her time on King Lear had grown close to Leander.
After this tragic evening, Jeevan is on his way to visit his brother when the story breaks that a global pandemic has struck, as a fatal flu is quickly spreading across the world. In amazingly rapid fashion, people die in droves and those who are left face a dramatically different world.
Station Eleven proceeds to tell its story through these three main characters, as well as some others, and the result is a richly written thought-provoking tale that kept me riveted from the first page to the very last.
While the story does jump back and forth through time, author St. John Mandel makes the wise decision to tell her story in clusters. So, large chunks of the tale follow one character, and then when another character is referenced, the story logically moves on to that character. Somehow, the story makes complete sense and seems to follow a perfectly logical order.
Through Jeevan, we learn of the initial days of the pandemic. He spends the first few weeks holed up with his brother in his brother’s apartment. They watch the news together, and witness the poignant and terribly sad scenes of newscasters performing their final broadcasts before all the TV stations eventually cease to exist since no one remains to operate them.
A running theme through the book during this time period is the expectation that at some point rescue would be imminent. The government would send in the Marines or the National Guard, and there would be clinics set up to treat the sick. But the sad reality hits that there is no rescue. There simply are not enough people left alive. The survivors face the grim reality that life as they knew it is over. This includes things like the internet, electricity, transportation, everything that people knew dies because there are no longer people left to work them.
Kirsten’s story takes place twenty years after the pandemic, set in the apocalyptic universe of the post-flu world. Kirsten travels with an acting troupe— safety in numbers—going about the countryside performing music and Shakespeare plays. She lives in a world where a generation of children has been born never having known the world as it was before. They have never seen cars drive, airplanes fly, refrigerators, air conditioners, electric light. It’s also a world where violence occurs, as there are no more governments or police forces to provide law and order.
One of the more suspenseful parts of the novel is when Kirsten and her acting troupe enter a town run by a religious fanatic who goes by the name of The Prophet. When they make it clear they want no part of his town or his beliefs, and they leave, they soon find themselves being pursued by The Prophet’s forces, and one by one they begin to disappear.
Arthur Leander’s story is told through flashback, obviously, as he dies in the opening pages, but this doesn’t seem to bother author St. John Mandel, and Leander’s story is one of the best written stories in the novel. It’s also the most important, as Leander is the glue that holds the story together. Everyone in the story has some connection to Leander, including his former wives and also his best friend Clark.
The main story of Leander involves him looking back at his life and wondering how it all happened. He never set out to become a famous film actor, and he never really grew accustomed to the fame that went with it. The story follows his relationships with his multiple wives. He has a son with his second wife, a son he never is able to grow close to, and in fact on the day he dies, he’s planning to make amends and finally spend time with his young son. Leander’s story works so well because we know how it ends. We see him die in the first chapter, which makes his plans to reunite with his son all the more painful because we know they never happen. He doesn’t live long enough.
His friend Clark becomes a major character in the book, and he’s involved in one of the more memorable sequences of the story. He had been travelling on the day the flu epidemic broke out, and his plane was diverted to an airport in the small town of Severn City. Clark’s story follows the early days, as he and a small group of survivors set up a society in the airport as they wait for rescue, which never comes. Years later they remain at the airport and set up a society there. Clark also starts collecting items from their past life and eventually sets up a museum, which includes things like cell phones and other now useless electronic devices from the past.
Leander’s first wife Miranda plays a central role as well. In fact, the title Station Eleven refers to an unpublished comic book series that Miranda was working on, one that she ultimately gave to Leander, who, not really appreciating them or knowing what to do with them, gave them to young Kirsten as a gift. As a child, Kirsten loves the comics, loves the exploits of the main character Dr. Eleven in his science fiction adventures, and years later during the apocalypse, craves to know who wrote them and why no one besides herself seems to have heard of them.
Leander’s second wife and their son also play a central part in the story, as they happen to be on the same plane as Clark and find themselves stranded at the same airport, which leads me to one element of the story that didn’t work as well as the rest. All the characters are so intertwined, that it becomes a difficult stretch of the imagination that all these folks who knew Arthur Leander would all find themselves survivors of the apocalypse and even more hard to believe at the same airport, which ultimately happens. This is a minor quibble, because I absolutely loved this book but I did find myself having a difficult time believing that all these characters would be so connected with each other.
I also found similarities between the villainous character the Prophet and a comparable character from THE WALKING DEAD, the Governor. Now, there are certainly enough differences between the two to keep the Prophet a fresh character, but the way he leads his group, the way he twists the truth, and ultimately the way he uses violence reminded me an awful lot of my favorite WALKING DEAD villain, the Governor.
I also would have liked a more dramatic ending. That being said, the ending as it stands does fit in nicely with the rest of the novel. It’s just not very exciting.
As a STAR TREK fan, I enjoyed the many references to the STAR TREK universe. This begins with a tattoo on Kirsten’s arm with the quote “Because survival is insufficient,” which her close friend derides by saying “I’d be impressed if you didn’t lift the quote from STAR TREK.” The phrase is a quote from the character Seven of Nine on an episode of STAR TREK: VOYAGER.
Station Eleven is a highly recommended read. It’s the most satisfying novel I’ve read in a long while.