Station Eleven has perhaps the most appealing elevator pitch I’ve ever heard: a traveling symphony and theater troupe performs Shakespeare in a post-apocalyptic world. How can you not want to read that book immediately? When I heard that there was a comic book integral to the plot, it felt as though this novel had been written just for me. I expected a genre-bending, innovative work of fiction, a fresh take (thank goodness!) on the end of the world. Emily St. John Mandel has accomplished all of this, but she has also crafted an incredibly touching ode to our own time. Station Eleven is a terrifying, beautiful book, one that I’m guessing will stay with me for a long time.
Station Eleven follows a traveling symphony as it makes its rounds through makeshift communities in a new world, one still rebuilding after a terrible pandemic. Twenty years earlier, 99% of the world’s population was wiped out by the Georgia Flu, a fever that spread rapidly and killed those infected hours upon contracting. The novel explores the perspectives of many characters, as well as their lives before, during, and long after the nightmare of the disease’s spread. Part of the joy of the novel is learning how these characters are connected, so I don’t want to give too much away. If the novel can be said to have one main character, it would be Kirsten, an actress in the theater troupe who was a young girl when the pandemic started. She has scant memories of the world before the fever, and so she is fascinated by anything she can learn about that the way things used to be. She is also obsessed with two comic books given to her when she was very young: beautifully drawn science fiction stories about a colony fleeing a doomed Earth aboard a planet-sized ship called Station Eleven. As the symphony travels their usual route, it becomes clear that some of the towns they’ve visited have changed. A new cult has taken power, one with a leader that Kirsten feels a strange connection to, and as the symphony continues in their travels, it becomes clear that they are in more danger than ever before.
The power of Station Eleven lies in its incredible details. Of all the post-apocalyptic worlds I’ve read, this one is the most believable, and as such, the most haunting. St. John Mandel’s rendering of the world in disaster, and the surviving world that emerges, feel so spot-on. Some of it is scary, but some of it demonstrates the resilience of humanity, and the ability for groups of people to come together. One of my favorite scenes took place in a quarantined airport in the first days of the pandemic. The remaining people needed to break into the airport restaurant for food, but enough traces of civilization kept them from wanting to steal, and they hesitated until one man proudly held up his credit card, set it on the counter, and promised to charge all the food to it. It’s a sweet, funny moment that rings so true.
The book, despite being downright terrifying at times, is a really sweet tribute to the good in humanity. This should be expected from a novel about Shakespeare being performed after the world ends. Kirsten reflects on this in one of the most beautiful passages of the book, one that almost reads more like a poem:
“What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty. Twilight in the altered world, a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a parking lot in the mysteriously named town of St. Deborah by the Water, Lake Michigan shining half a mile away. Kirsten as Titania, a crown of flowers on her close-cropped hair, the jagged scar on her cheek-bone half-erased by candlelight […] Shakespeare was the third born to his parents, but the first to survive infancy. Four of his siblings died young. His son, Hamnet, died at eleven and left behind a twin. Plague closed the theater again and again, death flickering over the landscape. And now in a twilight once more lit by candles, the age of electricity having come and gone, Titania turns to face her fairy king.”
St. John Mandel imagines a ravaged world that still has hope, art, beauty, community. While at times it seems eerily prescient, Station Eleven ultimately filled me with a renewed belief in the best of us, the parts that can hopefully survive any disaster.