I’m one of those people that worries about the Apocalypse. I don’t stand on the corner with a tin foil hat on my head and a sign that says “The End is Near!” but I read the news enough to know that climate change is real and that the human race is vulnerable to some sort of global epidemic.
In Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandell, presents a plausible scenario for the end of humanity as we know it. A highly contagious flu virus, (the Georgia Flu) takes epidemiologists by surprise, and quickly spreads across the globe decimating the population. Over the course of the novel, she shows her protagonists pre-and-post epidemic, in a story that is simply told and well structured.
What surprised me about Station Eleven is that it is actually Can-Lit disguised as an American novel. I purchased the book after it was nominated for a National Book Award (US) and had to go back and make certain Amazon had downloaded the right novel after the story opens to a scene set in Toronto. Being Canadian, I’m always happy to see my home and native land presented as it is—cosmopolitan, sophisticated, and misunderstood.
I’m a big fan of Speculative and Dystopian fiction (see above), however Station Eleven is different from other novels in the genre in that it walks in the footsteps of the survivors immediately after the fall of civilization and flashes forward twenty years to its reconstruction. The world after the flu is bleak but not entirely depressing.It’s a dangerous world with dangerous people, but all is not lost, there are still bastions of people working together to make the most of the situation.
What’s interesting about the book, and perhaps it’s most resonant theme, is what survived the plague, and I’m not speaking on a purely carbon level here. Emily St. John Mandel pays close attention to objects pre-plague that are passed around like batons, and shows you where they end up twenty years later. I often look around my apartment and wonder what future generations of archeologists will make of what’s left of my belongings; the book really struck a chord with me in that sense.
The book is also an examination of religious text and how, under the right circumstance, anything can be perceived or interpreted as “divine”. At several points in the book, the author contemplates the role of Fate in our communal existence—if bad things “just happen” without rhyme or reason and whether those who survive were “chosen” or not.
Shakespeare’s King Lear has a recurring role in the novel, in the form of the actor Arthur Leander, whom I understood to be a symbol for the present world that we live in. The strongest connection I found between the two stories is theme of chaos. The protagonist, Kirsten, and the theatre troupe she travels with, known as “The Symphony” meander around Southern Ontario and the Michigan border like Lear wandering the heath during the storm. The bedouin nature of their lives makes them vulnerable to marauders and yet they pursue their quest to preserve Shakespeare’s work, in an attempt to return order to their lives.
Although this is a quiet book by post-apocalyptic standards, there is still enough tension and action to keep fans of The Hunger Games and it’s ilk engaged. Reading this book is sort of like walking around the downtown area of a major metropolitan city on Christmas day—desolate but alive, and full of wonderful little surprises.