Much of Emily St. John Mandel’s STATION ELEVEN takes place twenty years after the collapse of modern society due to a lethal and vicious pathogen named The Georgian Flu. The novel follows a group of survivors, dubbed “The Travelling Symphony”; a troupe of musicians and actors who commute from settlement to settlement performing Shakespeare alongside a selection of classical music.
The novel also uncovers the origins of several members of the group as well as a few peripheral characters who in the past were responsible for tangential connections amongst those remaining in the present.
There is a blurb on the back of the book written by Jessie Burton (author of The Miniaturist) that states, “Station Eleven left me wistful for a world where I still live.” This stuck with me throughout the three hundred plus pages of Emily St. John Mandel’s damn near perfect novel.
Let me explain.
There is a chapter early in the novel in which St. John Mandel presents an “incomplete list” of what made up the “old world” before the Georgian Flu proceeded to wipe out ninety nine percent of the Earth’s population. Sure, we would miss the absolutely integral parts of modern living like pharmaceuticals and hospitals, home heating and refrigerators, as well as transportation and electricity, but what she also throws in are the beautiful parts of life like “concert stages with candy-coloured halogens” and “ball games played under floodlights” or “porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights”. By having the characters wax poetic over the days of the past while also keeping both feet firmly planted in a world that had moved on, St. John Mandel made me appreciate the simple luxury of sitting in my reading chair, under a blanket, on a cold January night, like no novel had ever done before.
Emily St. John Mandel painted a compelling picture of societal disintegration that had me fully plugged into her world. Scenes of gridlocked, rusted-out vehicles housing skeletons and abandoned airports that held full communities of hundreds fully captured my imagination. She doesn’t skimp on the barbarous nature of humanity in detailing ruthless acts of killing, rape and gaslighting by those willing to seize power for their own benefit as she writes of a town fully succumbing to a twisted religious fanatic offering up false hope in exchange for absolute control.
Although COVID-19 is not nearly as horrendous as the mutated swine flu that St. John Mandel presents in her novel, the similarities between the chaotic early days of both viruses had me feeling sick to my stomach as I recalled those first few weeks in 2020 of mind-crippling anxiety and despair. But as a friend told me, “there is just so much hope in this book” and he wasn’t wrong. In Emily St. John Mandel’s story, while much of the luxuries were left behind to the pre-flu era, those who survived carried forward much of what made humanity special and kind. The fact that a group of actors and musicians continued to travel over parts of North America twenty years after the collapse of society to perform Shakespeare gives us all hope that maybe, if we’re unlucky enough to have this happen in our lifetimes, that maybe life can continue outside the vein of brutalist survival instincts while maintaining a sense of community.
STATION ELEVEN is a tremendous novel that truly deserves all the hype and awards that it has been showered with. It’s a shame that it took me this long to read it, but I think having lived through a pandemic, it made the story hit that much harder. The novel has been shortlisted for this year’s Canada Reads competition so it has some tough competition in the road ahead, but I would not be shocked at all to see it collect yet another accolade.