Review: Station Eleven

4.5 out of 5 stars

Beautifully written, Station Eleven is more realistic now than when it was written. A pandemic has killed 99% of the people on Earth, but this isn’t a horror novel. It’s a hopeful one.

Goodreads.com: Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

Timelines weave seamlessly through Station Eleven. In one, the pandemic explodes over the Earth. In another, a traveling symphony navigates the post-apocalyptic landscape 20 years later. In a third is where everyone’s memories live – and where they live in their memories. But these timelines are all one, really: the pandemic stopped everything, for everyone. What’s come after has a translucent feeling, a pause of waiting to see what, if anything at all, comes next.

Station Eleven centers mainly on the traveling symphony. This troupe of actors and musicians traverses what’s left of the Lake Michigan area, bringing Shakespeare and some much-needed levity to the lives people have tried to rebuild. Kirsten, mid-20s now, remembers little of life before. This is her world: the family of travelers, this world of ragged spectacle, the danger and unknown of everyday on a nearly empty Earth. She acted as my curiosity, the reader’s not-afraid-but-guarded guide to this life. As the symphony reworked classic plays, clinging to the familiar but yearning for any kind of future, it gave equal parts hope and melancholy to a potentially bleak reality.

My favorite storyline, though, is where the pandemic explodes over the Earth. Not in Javeen, the med student through whom we see it in real time, but rather those whose lives never paused for the pandemic. They just ended. There’s Arthur, star of stage a screen, who [not a spoiler] dies in the first few pages of the book. And not even from the virus. But the story of his life and those he touched, especially his wife Miranda, was for me the beating heart of this book. There’s a delicate destruction to their relationship, to his fame, to their lives after each other which seemed as finely, painstakingly drawn as the the comic book she spends her life creating. And when it all ends, for nearly everyone, everywhere, all at once, there is still so much beauty in who they were.

This feeling is capped by the Museum of Civilization. Run by Clark, who happened to know people, who happened to be at an airport, who happened to save some things, it collects items from the world before, so as not to lose the history or hope of a people. Like Clark, it pines for the ease and opportunity of the past. But there are things it doesn’t miss, things it finds enough of in this frozen life: people, stories, the comfort of a found family. Clark is old enough to know how the world was before so much technology; he’s among the best equipped to handle it without. He, the museum, and Station Eleven as a whole, bring a surprising and lasting sense of peace to a frighteningly realistic storyline. We can only hope humanity would do so well if faced with the same.

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