• Sweetwater County Library

Station Eleven is an excellent story of a pandemic, survival and memories

A review by Alan Vaughn

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is an excellent apocalyptic novel whose plot is hauntingly prescient of the current crisis occurring around the world. Set in the near future, the novel starts out with the on-stage death of a famous actor during a performance of King Lear and from there quickly morphs into a much broader setting as we are introduced to several characters who are all connected to this famous man. His ex-wives, college friends, and acting peers barely have time to comprehend his death and start mourning this complicated man before a deadly pandemic sweeps the world leaving it in darkness.

Jumping forward 20 years, the narrative follows a traveling symphony and troupe of actors who have joined up in a never-ceasing caravan traveling through the former great lakes region. As humans slowly rebuild our civilization in the face of a total collapse of order and safety. The small percentage who have survived the deadly pandemic must also survive each other in a much grimmer world than many of the survivors ever thought possible. Faced with the loss of so much, some few chose to strive for more and that is epitomized in the motto of traveling symphony, “Survival is Insufficient” (which is actually cribbed from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager).

Although they travel armed and ready to defend themselves, they also strive to bring peace and joy to all the new communities they frequent on their circuitous routes. Full of nostalgia for their lost world, the survivors are doing their best to pick up the pieces and rebuild but face a host of uncertainties and setbacks. Mandel raises a powerful question on the importance of memory and how it shapes the people we become. As the years progress, there becomes a sharper divide between those who can’t get over their fallen state and others who are determined to shed the past instead of carrying it around like a lodestone. Though in the end there can be no real resolution to this divide as we are defined by our memories and existing without a past is not possible.

As the traveling symphony explores its normal route, they run into trouble in a formerly friendly town, and this sets them down a path they have never explored before. It is down this path that Kirsten Raymonde, a young survivor and actress, will gradually meet with ghosts and memories of almost-forgotten past. Back when she witnessed the death of another actor on-stage on the eve of the pandemic that destroyed their world and started her down her own gradual path to the traveling symphony. Here we see the true skill of the author as Mandel draws together a seemingly disparate cast of characters into a fine web of action and consequence that all centers on a single man.

I recommend this for fans of Oryx & Crake by Margaret Atwood, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, or The Passage by Justin Cronin.

Station Eleven is available in ebook format on Cloud Library and in both ebook and audiobook formats from Overdrive.

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