A fast killing disease of mysterious origins begins wiping out most of Earth’s population and leads to the destruction of society as we know it. If you feel like this premise has been seen and done before and that there isn’t anything new to add to the genre then you haven’t yet read Emily St. John Mandel’s fantastic novel Station Eleven. Especially in recent history this trope has been used (and abused) by a large number of authors and filmmakers. We’ve seen dystopic societies that force children to kill each other, others in which zombies have taken over as Earth’s predominant predators, or a seemingly infinite number of weather or pollution related menaces that make life on earth unlivable. Even on the plague/disease front we’ve seen so many threats to specifically human survival. The thing is, most of these works focus so much of their attention on either the cataclysmic event itself or on how people survive in an apparently unlivable environment and how they cope with the changed world around them.
A few years ago I read a short story collection by Michel Faber called Some Rain Must Fall. In it was a short story called “Fish”. The concept veers towards the absurd: in an undisclosed but seemingly near future, fish have found a way to survive outside the water and basically float around earth bringing death and destruction to human beings. The threat is very much felt, but through the eyes of one specific character, a child, we come to find that for him things were not as dire as for his mother who remembered a world prior to the fish takeover. This was his life, all he had ever known in fact, and for that reason life for him was not inherently a survival game. He was living, in spite of all the odds, and the fish were simply something bigger and badder that one had to watch out for, but that did not provoke feelings of loss or despair, rather they were simply something to watch out for. Mandel’s novel feels like a literary cousin to Faber’s short story.
Station Eleven is very broad in scope. It opens with a performance of King Lear in Toronto, in which a small tragedy takes place during one of the play’s acts. Completely unrelated to the events in the theater, this night also happens to mark the arrival of a flu originating in the country of Georgia on North American soil. Very quickly people begin to die and Earth’s population is decimated, estimated at a mortality rate of 99% of the human race. What starts to happen? We actually do not know and never really find out exactly. The novel doesn’t dwell on the immediate aftermath of the cataclysm, instead it shifts forward to twenty years later.
Two decades after the disease has wreaked havoc on humanity, leading to a fall of governments, amenities, technology and infrastructure, there are still pockets of people left in the world occupying new colonies. The focus is on a traveling group of actors and musicians who go from town to town performing the works of Shakespeare as well as performing concerts for the local survivors of the Georgia flu. Mandel’s narrative and style are truly admirable, as the reader experiences the new world through the eyes of one specific actress in the company, Kirsten, who was only a small child when the world changed and has very few memories of life before that way of life came to an end. This allows the reader to experience and learn what life on earth has become, mostly due to the fact that Kirsten is not really lamenting what has come to pass – she knows things are different, but the majority of her life has been lived in the new status quo. And it is a life. Travel, discussions, breakups, fights – life is quotidian no matter what the circumstances are, and Mandel evokes all these instances and emotion associated with them masterfully.
The focus does not always stay on Kirsten and her fellow thespians and performers. Proving Mandel’s capable ability to keep track of intersecting and parallel story lines, the story continuously shifts both geographically and temporally. Described are the decades before the disease takes hold of the world, scenes of the novel take place as far as Malaysia, and never does the reader doubt that Mandel is able to account for all these shifts. She is a fantastic conductor whose writing is at once gripping and prosaically beautiful.
If I do have one gripe with this novel, and there is only one, it has to do with Mandel’s way of interconnecting the many storylines and characters. Interweaving several locations and characters in a novel can be done masterfully. Recently Khaled Hosseini did just that in And the Mountain Echoed, in which a butterfly effect-like narrative takes us from one person to the next, showcasing the importance and compelling nature of human life, no matter how small or influential. Hosseini did that by simply shifting focus from one person to the next sometimes through meaningful relationships, but other times simply due to a casual connection that in and of itself was meaningless. Mandel in her novel chooses a different, and sometimes quite frustrating and facile, route. In a world decimated of its population it is at best extremely difficult to believe that amongst the survivors there would be so many personal connections. Yet Mandel chooses to showcase that we are all closer than we think, even without Facebook and email, by inserting (sometimes heavy-handed) clues for the reader proving this. It was a bit distracting, especially given how good of a writer she is and how well she is able to tell a story and connect with the reader.
I truly enjoyed this book. And I am hesitant to refer it to a dystopic or apocalyptic novel because of how different it is from the other works that do belong to that genre. It is a book about human nature, about humans, about us.