Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
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Synopsis via Goodreads: An audacious, darkly glittering novel set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse, Station Eleven tells the spellbinding story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.
One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time-from the actor’s early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theater troupe known as the Traveling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains – this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor’s first wife, his oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony, caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet.
Sometimes terrifying, sometimes tender, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it.
A fragment for my friend —
If your soul left this earth I would follow and find you
Silent, my starship suspended in night.
How is it possible to recover from reading a book so completely and undeniably perfect?
I wasn’t sure what to expect going into Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. It was a book that danced outside of my peripherals for a while but was never a story I was sure I’d enjoy. The apocalyptic genre has become somewhat overdone within the past few years and I didn’t feel particularly inclined to venture into another narrative involving the collapse of humanity. But there was a crucial difference with Station Eleven that forced me to reconsider: it takes place where I grew up.
Being Canadian means (among many wonderful things) bordering a country that seems to get all of the glory in terms of storytelling. New York City, a short 9-hour drive from my hometown, is the backdrop for so many beloved films and books that its use as a setting is never anything of a shock. But Toronto? My province’s capital and the glittering skyline across the lake from where I grew up? It isn’t often that it’s used as such an important location in a story. And it isn’t often that I read a book and think “I know exactly where that character is standing right now.”
There was a moment in Station Eleven that painted such a specific picture in my head and strengthened my relationship with the book in a way I had never before experienced. A character, after leaving Toronto following humanity’s collapse, stares across Lake Ontario towards Toronto on the opposite side:
There was a clear morning some days later when he looked up and saw Toronto on the far side of the lake, ghostly with distance. A thin blue spire piercing the sky, glass city. From this distance it looked like something from a fairy tale.(pg. 193)
This is an image very familiar to me. Driving along the lake on the QEW towards Toronto or sitting in the tower of my university’s library and seeing the city glistening across the water with the CN Tower shooting towards the sky. While Mandel painted Toronto with a magical stroke, it was the ‘end of humanity’ theme that made me really reflect on the area I grew up in and what would happen if the people and places I love were suddenly no longer there.
And it was the people, the beautiful depiction of humanity, empathy, and personal histories that made this book so special and so different from other books in the genre. In a world where much of the population is gone, there is still an undeniable feeling of hope, community, and love despite the fear and uncertainty around every corner. It all centers around Arthur Leander, one of the most complex and tragic characters I’ve had the pleasure of reading, and his sudden death at the novel’s onset. The continued effect that his death has on the lives of those who were closest to him, for better or for worse, set the individual character’s personal stories into motion before and after the collapse.
I thought often of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road while reading Station Eleven and how different the two stories are. While McCarthy focuses on isolation and fear, Mandel looks forward towards progress and peace while never allowing the reader to forget the past, the ‘before’. The Road is a beautifully human story but in a much different way than Station Eleven. It is because of this that I recommend this book to anyone that enjoyed McCarthy’s heavy and difficult post-apocalyptic narrative if only to shed light on a possibly different outcome to a similar tragic scenario. While there is substantial pain, loss, and tragedy covering the pages of Mandel’s book, hope prevails. The Star Trek-inspired motto of the Travelling Symphony, a group traveling post-collapse performers and musicians, perfectly summarises the theme of the novel: “survival is insufficient‘.
If you read nothing else this year, read Station Eleven and let it tear you apart before (partially) putting you back together again. Though it’s less than 400 pages, Mandel’s novel is an epic that spans across North America and sucks you into the lives of five very different characters who continue to fight towards their survival and the mark that they leave in their own chapters in history.