Title: Station Eleven
Author: Emily St. John Mandel
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 Travelling 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.”
This book is not for everyone. Or rather, this book is very much for me.
It is not a plot driven novel, that’s for sure. The narrative jumps around in time both before and after the collapse of civilization, so some characters aren’t mentioned for pages at the time. There is a vague threat in the present timeline as well as the looming question of what happens on the long term that is rarely answered in post-apocalyptic narratives.
It is not your common post-apocalyptic story either. On the one hand, it has some of the tropes one would expect to see in shows like The Walking Dead (sans zombies, of course). People were desperate at the beginning, cults were formed, and there is talk of raiders, but Mandel chooses to set a large chunk of the story twenty years after, so it is not the focus. Survival is insufficient for this story; it is about what we cling on to. Not to mention the lengthy sections set before the collapse.
The writing style is enchanting as Mandel has a tight grip on the tone and atmosphere. Every line has a wistfulness to it. I cried many times, even in moments that were not supposed to be important. Although the book has its fair share of metaphors and such, its power derives on how it lingers on certain details, on certain moments like the fake snow in the opening of the novel. Mandel can turn a phrase, but it goes beyond that: she extracts beauty all throughout the novel, both in the apocalypse and before it.
I would call this a character-driven novel, but that is also not quite right. It is not driven by interactions and reactions like most plays are, for example. I don’t want to give away how the stories are interconnected, but Mandel clearly is more interested on the emotional beats. It’s not about what is happening and how it relates to the different characters, but how the emotions and themes relate to one another as she weaves them together. What one character says in the future or in a comic often resonates with another character in the past. It takes a lot of craft to carry the reader from emotion to emotion as deftly as Mandel does.
This is a book about art, but it does not get preachy about its importance. Art, be it music, theatre or writing, drives most of the characters and this is never questioned. This book isn’t trying to convince you that art makes us human; it takes that for granted and goes on from there, aided by the writing and metaphors. I definitely got a lot from it, coming from a family of actors, musicians and such.
Most of all, this novel is achingly human.