Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven

Station ElevenIn Station Eleven, 99% of the population has been wiped out by the Georgian Flu. Towns and cities have been deserted, as people set out to escape the flu, which spread quickly and without mercy throughout densely populated areas. Instead, settlements have sprung up wherever people ended up when they ran out of fuel – around petrol stations or fast food restaurants – or at hotels or defunct airport lounges.
It starts with the death of Arthur Leander, who collapses on stage whilst performing King Lear at a Toronto theatre, just days before the collapse. Arthur dies in the old world, but the lives of people who knew him wind throughout the past and the present. From his ex-wives to the young child actress playing a walk-on part in Lear, he is the glue that holds the novel together.

Twenty years in the future, the national grid is down. The survivors have no electricity. Even if they can discover ways to generate their own power, the internet is down. Modern communication methods no longer exist. Kirsten, the child who once performed in King Lear, is now part of the Travelling Symphony, travelling the country performing plays by Shakespeare. They offer people much needed and wanted entertainment as they rebuild their lives again from scratch. But when travelling through one settlement, it becomes clear that something is wrong. The symphony is threatened, and has to pull together and rely on all their wits to avoid falling into the clutches of the dangerous self-proclaimed ‘Prophet’.

In the past, Arthur’s first wife, Miranda, struggles to cope with the pressures of life of Hollywood, while Elizabeth, his second, takes her young son to live halfway around the world. Arthur’s college friend, Clark, remembers the person that he used to be. Arthur’s death is a catalyst that throws them all back together.

But the backbone of this story isn’t about the plague itself, and it’s not really about the symphony’s altercation with the Prophet, which provides just a loose framework and structure for the novel. There are no huge battles for supplies or survival. Instead, this book is about how people adapt and change as a result of events that have changed the world beyond recognition. It’s about the relationships that people form and the search for answers behind a natural disaster.

In terms of the resources that people have at their disposal after the Georgia flu hits, the survivors are very much back in Shakespeare’s time. The only difference is that they know what they could have, if the modern world had not collapsed. A big theme throughout the book is accepting the new state of play and searching for ways to move on. Life as we know it has gone, irrevocably. The only way forward is to adjust and rebuild. And despite the post-apocalyptic nature of the book, it ends with a feeling of hope.

It’s beautifully written and linked together, and I really enjoyed reading it. While the subject is sci-fi, it doesn’t fit neatly into this genre and reads more like a literary commentary on the human consciousness and our ability to change.

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