Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel – review

Station+Eleven+comic+8I came to this with no preconceptions, having downloaded it some time before I got around to it. I’d even forgotten it was a post-apocalyptic novel (one of my favourite genres) in between hearing it recommended on The Incomparable podcast and reading it. Even if post-apocalyptic SF isn’t your kind of thing, this might well be. It’s not a zombie apocalypse, it’s not Stephen King. Probably the closest thing to it in my experience is Kate Wilhelm’s classic Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang.

What are we interested in, when it comes to the apocalypse? How it happens, yes, and the immediate aftermath, yes, but then after that, what? How civilisation is rebuilt? How crazy prophets go around exploiting people? How grim everything is? Or are we interested in how things settle down and how people adjust, and how things like art and music endure?

Station Eleven is and isn’t about all of those things. Its narrative floats around, stopping in odd moments, taking us in unexpected directions, dwelling on details you’d normally expect to be skated over. The novel begins with the death of an actor, and the efforts of a trainee paramedic to administer CPR. And it focuses on characters connected to this event, which itself has nothing to do with the end of civilisation, but is merely coincidental with it. Coincidence is important here, but it stands for something bigger: for the things we share, no matter how different our lives and experience.

And what of the title? The Station Eleven of the title doesn’t have much to do with the end of the world, either. But it matters in the sense that it’s an example of the kind of thing that is lost when we lose everything. Things like electricity, and air travel, antibiotics, insulin, the internet. One chapter in the book is simply that: a list of the things that are no more.

Fragments are all that remain. Fragments of this life, of that. Memories gained and lost. A few letters here, an interview there. Pages of a graphic novel, a little bit of Shakespeare. These are pieces of a puzzle that gradually fits together and gives us (only ever) a partial picture of what life might be like if a virulent strain of flu wipes out almost everybody. And that’s the genius of the book: because in a world without social media, without internet, without air travel, where life takes place at the pace and distance you can walk, a partial picture of life is all you will get.

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