One snowy night in Toronto famous actor Arthur Leander dies on stage whilst performing the role of a lifetime. That same evening a deadly virus touches down in North America. The world will never be the same again.
Twenty years later Kirsten, an actress in the Travelling Symphony, performs Shakespeare int he settlements that have grown up since the collapse. But then her newly hopeful world is threatened.
If civilization was lost, what would you preserve? And how far would you go to protect it?
Length: 339 pages
Content warnings: the pandemic, violence, death
I’ve been wanting to read Station Eleven for years. It’s a book I’ve seen talked about and recommended a lot, and it has a lot of hype around it. So I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I know my expectations were high.
Did the book meet those high expectations?
Kind of but not really.
Station Eleven is a quiet book. Though it’s about a very big subject (a post-apocalyptic world after a deadly pandemic), the actual story is quite small. It’s about people, about how those people survive in a world after civilization has collapsed, and what’s actually important when the trappings of society are stripped away.
The first, and biggest, disappointment I encountered in Station Eleven was the slow beginning. And I mean it was really slow. I got nearly 100 pages in and wanted to DNF because nothing was really happening. I didn’t care about the characters, and I couldn’t see where the story was going. But I persevered, and it did get better. So if you read this, it’s worth sticking with it beyond those initial 100 pages, because at about that point, we do start to see what the story is and why we should care about the characters.
In typical literary fiction style, the characters are probably the weakest point of the book. I only ever felt like we grazed the surface of who they are as people, and I do feel like that’s fairly typical of this style of writing. The story is about its themes, and as we get a an omniscient, multi-POV narrative, depth of character is a really difficult thing to pull off. The characters do feel like real people, but I had a sense of disconnection from them.
The rest of the story also feels very realistic in its descriptions and action. In particular, the sections that describe the outbreak of the pandemic are quite chilling. I don’t know if I’d feel this way if not for living through our own recent pandemic. Because I’ve experienced the shock of watching the world its systems shut down during lockdown, I could easily imagine the terror of what the characters in Station Eleven go through as the world realises just how bad their pandemic is. Obviously what Mandel describes in the book is much worse than what happened in 2020, but it’s not a huge leap away. Which is frightening.
The narrative is non-linear. Though we begin the story before the flu outbreak that turns into the pandemic, the story after that point jumps back and forth in time between what happened during the initial outbreak, Kirsten’s time 20 years after the outbreak, and some parts which Mandel sets years before the pandemic. These earlier parts are mainly following Arthur, the actor who dies at the beginning of the book. Though there isn’t an obvious main character, if I had to choose one, I’d say it would be Arthur. We see most of his life throughout the narrative, and the book keeps coming back to him.
Thematically, Station Eleven deals with ideas around what’s truly important in life. When all the societal expectations, the technology, and money disappear, what do we value, and why? The characters in the book find comfort and a sense of safety as collectives. They group together in former public buildings, such as restaurants, airports, and large shops. Mandel never describes anyone living in private houses in this world, I suppose for safety reasons more than anything else. But the message that comes across is the importance of community, of family, of having someone to talk to and survive with.
The other thing that Station Eleven posits as vital is the arts. The other ‘main’ character is Kirsten, an actress who was a young child when the pandemic hit and society collapsed. Grown in the future timeline, she travels with a touring group of actors and musicians, performing Shakespeare plays and playing classical music to entertain the towns and communities they pass through. The ‘Travelling Symphony’ uses “survival is insufficient” as their motto (a quote Mandel takes from the science-fiction show Star Trek Voyager). To me, this means that simply surviving is not enough: what is survival without the pleasures of the arts?
Overall, I’m glad I read Station Eleven, though it didn’t live up to my expectations. I went into expecting an epic story that would sweep me away, and instead I found a small, quiet, slow story about how people cope in the aftermath of world-altering disaster. There is no grand narrative here, simply a story about people. And though I only rated it a four-star on Goodreads, I think in some ways it deserves more than that, because it’s helped to change the way I’m thinking about stories, and my own writing (as an aside). Stories don’t have to be huge and sweeping to be thought-provoking and interesting. They can simply be about small people living small lives, even in the speculative space.