‘What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there was still such beauty.’
When I saw Emily St. John Mandel speak several weeks ago at the Sydney Writers’ Festival I was interested enough by how she described Station Eleven to immediately purchase a copy. Not because it’s another post-apocalyptic story (and who doesn’t love one of those?), but because Mandel seems to believe, as I do, that no matter where and when a people are living, they will ascribe meaning to the things they create.
At its heart, Station Eleven asks a simple question: if the world were to end, what would you preserve? What means the most to you? This is a world in which airplanes blossom rust twenty years after a virulent swine flu has wiped out 99.9% of the world’s population. Where the remains of humanity make communities in roadside motels and abandoned airports. It’s a study of contemporary technology – iPhones, laptops, petrol-fuelled transport – in absence.
Unlike most apocalyptic stories, death and depravity are not centre-stage (the irony here is that the book opens with an actor dying of a heart attack while performing King Lear on the night the flu arrives in North America). This isn’t The Walking Dead, where the margin between the living and the undead becomes increasingly difficult to judge the more humanity is stripped away for the sake of survival. The terrible days are in the past already, suggested through memories repressed and things only mentioned in passing. And there certainly are still those in the world who seek to exploit others. But Station Eleven has a more wistful focus.
The plot roughly focuses on two characters. First, Kirsten and a troupe of actors travel from town to town 20 years after the collapse, performing Shakespearean plays and eking out a living. Second, Arthur Leander and his life long before and shortly after he dies on stage as King Lear.
These two lives are bound together in unexpected ways across time. Bound by mundane items such as a beautiful glass paperweight and a limited-print comic book entitled Station Eleven. Small, beautiful things are at the heart of this novel precisely because, while so much has been lost, they’ve been given new meanings.
The book does fall back on tropes of the genre. The tense moments stockpiling supplies before the collapse, the creepy prophet who leads dangerous zealots in the new world. But what is unusual for a post-apocalyptic novel is it’s hopeful tone. And it’s worth a read, if just to see how well Mandel strikes that balance.
This review was first published at Fantastica on 26 June 2015.