“She was thinking about the way she’d always taken for granted that the world had certain people in it, either central to her days or unseen and infrequently thought of. How without any one of these people the world is a subtly but unmistakably altered place, the dial turned just one or two degrees.”
This is a book about the beautiful sadness of surviving. In Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, a fictional swine flu pandemic, called the Georgia Flu, wipes out a fantastic number of the population – around four out of five people on the planet. Everywhere.
Not everyone is killed. The story isn’t about why the survivors survived, but they did. The story is about how the world looks 20 years after the epidemic. Spoiler: No zombies. The author flips between three-ish stories: in flashback, the life of an actor who has a heart attack on the eve of the epidemic; a young female survivor who, at eight years old, watched the actor as he fell onstage, the memory of him being the strongest image to pull her through the experience of her entire world imploding; and a paranoid photographer-now-paramedic, who gives us a glimpse of the initial days of societal collapse from the view of his brother’s stockpiled apartment.
Setting a story in a post-apocalyptic world is a tricky thing: the plot can become perverse with too much beyond our known lives. Granted, a post-apocalyptic scenario itself would be just that, but — call me ficti-normative, or what you will — I like being able to relate to some aspects of the story I’m reading.
When an author takes charge of how our world – the one we know so well – drastically changes, there’s sure to be an avalanche of questions. While St. John Mandel opens many threads, character-wise and life-wise, she keeps the main plot on track by leaving some questions refreshingly undetailed.
This was mostly a good thing as the novel would have become a tome, but I would have been pleased to have a few more details and some characters’ stories more mindfully tethered together in the end.
Overall, the emotive qualities the author uses to pull us through this dystopian saga, thick with fear and vulnerability, is the muscle of her story. Station Eleven resonates with the shock, the awe, the hope and the dismantling of society in a fluid and personable manner. Many scenes are described with metaphors so seemingly small and mundane and, therefore, so appropriate – because isn’t that what we would all miss most later? The stirring of coffee at the milk counter, the flicker of the garage light, the hum of the library printer? Because of this, the moments of introspection and other-worldly experience still feel intimate and tangible.
So, huzzah! for this novel, and for bringing the dystopian future genre onto my playlist. Plus bonus points: this novel is partly set in Canada and written by a Canadian author.
Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel Station Eleven is available at the Whitehorse Public Library and in the communities through the Yukon Public Libraries system.