Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Station Eleven - Emily St. John Mandel

I really had not intended to be reading Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven right in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic. It just turned out that way because I checked the book out of my local library almost six weeks ago, and only just realized a few days ago that it is due back there this week. So time was running out on me. But now that Station Eleven will be forever connected in my mind with the Coronavirus, I know this is one I will remember for a long, long time – for lots of reasons.

Station Eleven is a beautifully constructed dystopian novel that spans the two weeks just before, and the 15-20 years following, the outbreak of a virus so deadly that it wipes out almost the entire population of the planet. The story begins during a Toronto production of King Lear during which the lead actor collapses and dies on-stage of a heart attack. Arthur Leander’s death, as it turns out, will be a prophetic one because almost everyone else in the theater that night will themselves be dead within just a few days. Two people who were in the theater, paramedic Jeevan Chaudhary and child actor Kirsten Raymonde, do survive to become major characters in the novel.

As the author describes it:

            “There was the flu that exploded like a neutron bomb over the surface of the earth and the shock of the collapse that followed, the first unspeakable years when everyone was traveling, before everyone caught on that there was no place they could walk to where life continued as it had been before and settled wherever they could, clustered close together for safety in truck stops and former restaurants and old motels.”

And rather eerily, there is the scene during which an epidemiologist goes on a television news program to describe how the virus manifests itself:

            “Aches and pains. A sudden high fever. Difficulty breathing. Look, it’s a fast incubation period. If you’re exposed, you’re sick in three or four hours and dead in a day or two.” (At which point, the newscaster decides it’s time for a “quick commercial break.”)

Emily St. John Mandel
Station Eleven is largely set in the two decades following the outbreak of the deadly flu, and it features a group of characters somehow connected to Arthur, the actor who dies on stage at the beginning of he book. For instance, Kirsten, the young actor who was on stage with Arthur when he died, is now part of a small troupe of actors and musicians (called the Traveling Symphony) that walks from settlement to settlement performing Shakespeare and playing music for entertainment-starved people. And Jeevan finds that his paramedic training makes him the closest thing to a real doctor that anyone living around him will ever see again. Too, all three of Arthur’s ex-wives and his son play major roles in the novel.

What makes Station Eleven particularly poignant is the way Mandel uses flashbacks to show what the lives of her characters were like before their world ended in a whimper the way that it did. The flashbacks are especially affective when they occur only hours before the pandemic onset and Mandel makes it a point to note that a character was enjoying his second-to-last cup of coffee or some such thing.

Bottom Line: Station Eleven is an impressive dystopian novel that will (unfortunately) strike a particularly familiar chord with future readers who have experienced the Coronavirus outbreak for themselves. The novel cleverly pulls together a series of characters and stories that all come together, full-circle, by the novel’s end. Station Eleven ends pretty much where it began, in fact, leaving the reader with a lot to ponder. Reading this one right now may not be for everyone, but if you do read it now, I guarantee you that it will stick with you and give you plenty to think about. I highly recommend this one.


  1. I think this would not be for me right now, if at all as I'm really not a dystopian fan and even less so at the moment. In Cornwall still but heading home tomorrow, feel fortunate to have seen the Cornish side of my family before the real lockdown begins. I suggested to Judith at Reader in the Wilderness that some of us book bloggers who know each other should try to post often to keep our spirits up. You already do but I can certainly increase my output. You and your wife take care, Sam. Are either of you high risk? My husband is... heart condition, diabetes etc. So we may have to do 12 weeks isolation. Hardly seems credible but we can do it I'm sure.

    1. Cath, I'm a fan of dystopians and have read quite a few of them, so many that they all start to blend together in my mind. This one was a notch above most all of them and because of the circumstances I'll remember it forever.

      My wife is high risk because she doesn't have full lung capacity any longer and cannot take any antibiotics without creating worse problems than she started with. She would really struggle to overcome a case of pneumonia now, so she's been self-quarantining for a week now. I try to stay in as much as possible myself but one of us has to go on the occasional scavenger hunt for supplies, and that's me.

      I agree. I would love to see everyone blog as often as possible because that kind of conversation is still the best.

    2. You guys take care of yourselves because I think it's going to get considerably worse before it gets better. I'm still trying to figure out how to help my father from a distance but the facility is on lockdown for the second week now, and so far so good...no virus amongst the 160 residents.

    3. Thanks, Sam, we will certainly take care, we're lucky in that we have a daughter close by who wants to help as much as possible. You're right, this will definitely get worse before it gets better, this is just the beginning, a scary thought.

      I'm sorry to hear that your wife is high risk, much more than my husband by the sound of it. (He's quite annoyed that we've categorised him as such.) Exactly, someone has to go out for essential supplies, if you can find them that is. Someone on the news this morning pointed out that 2020 is a 'good' time to be self-isolated because of social media and the internet. He said if it was 1980 we'd all be indoors playing I Spy for three months! LOL... too true.

      I do hope your father's facility stays virus free. It's worry enough for our age group, but 'theirs' is something else again.

    4. Sounds like it's really getting crazy in London, with the metro being at least partially shut down and the possibility that the whole city will self-quarantine soon. I saw this morning that the grocery stores are asking for police protection if that actually happens.

      You know, I suspect that the world will never be quite the same again, even after all of this is "over." It will take years for the world's economies to recover from this and the life savings of millions of people will have been lost.

      Oh, well. Don't mind me. I'm feeling particularly gloomy this morning.

  2. I still haven't read this one, but it's been on my TBR list for forever.

    1. It was on my list for almost six years, so I know what you mean. I'm glad I didn't lose my list. :-0

  3. STATION ELEVEN is a unique one. Definitely memorable. For some reason, I've been on a fictional dystopian kick during this IRL pandemic. I've read several of them this month. Maybe to remind myself that, comparatively, things aren't THAT bad!

    1. I have loved dystopian novels since I was a teenager. I always look at them as training manuals for our possible future. Looks like I may have been right about that. :-)