Emily St. John Mandel completely captivated me with her fourth novel, Station Eleven. Set in a post-apocalyptic world where a flu virus wiped out 99% of the population within weeks, the story is fed to you piece by piece from multiple POVs and multiple points in time including both before and after the epidemic outbreak. There is a small cast of well developed characters that are all connected in intricate ways, connections which unfold slowly as the tale plays out which I enjoyed immensely. Fun fact: One of the central characters, Arthur Leander, is from what Mandel describes in her interview over at Omnivoracious as an “ever-so-thinly fictionalized version of the island where I grew up on the west coast of British Columbia,” that sounded EXACTLY like the island I live on. I looked it up and Mandel grew up on Denman Island, which is a short trip North of where we are in the gulf islands on Gabriola. Same vibe, ferns and trees and deer everywhere, a small village with a grocery store, library, gas station, elementary school, ferry access etc. THIS MADE ME SO EXCITED. Tons of books are set in LA or New York, and many Canadian books are set in Toronto (including this one and, like, all the Atwoods) but very rarely do I come across a book that includes a setting on the very West Coast of BC. I love it here and I love to read about it too! So mega-super-fan-girl-points to Mandel for feeding my love of the Salish Sea and it’s numerous tiny hippie-inhabited islands.
I felt like this book stood out from the zillions of other post-apocalypse stories in a few ways, firstly and most terrifyingly the fact that it felt completely and utterly plausible. Mandel describes through one POV the panic of hearing from a friend in the hospital of a flu virus that is spreading rapidly out of control, and follows the character through his immediate hoarding of goods at the grocery store and showing up at his brother’s apartment in the middle of the night to warn him and board themselves up inside. This is a familiar scene in many dystopian novels and movies that often also features zombies (think the apartments they hole up in in 28 Days Later and/or World War Z) but because this book DIDN’T have zombies and instead just had a killer flu made it even more disturbing. Extra marks awarded for the inclusion of airplanes as a way for the virus to spread. A large portion of the book is set in an airport after a flight is diverted and the passengers essentially abandoned in the terminal as the flu runs its course. The characters watch a plane land on the crowded runway, taxi as far from the terminal as it can then sit there without opening the doors. It becomes quickly apparent that the plane has been contaminated and all the passengers are infected. They remain in the plane where they all eventually die. CHILLS. The second thing that stood out for me about this novel was the way the characters were constructed and the fine latticework of their relationships to each other. Mandel took a far more literary approach to the classic apocalypse story and she pulled it off with tremendous success. There are many moments where the characters reflect on their lives, their relationships to others, and how those relationships were altered or destroyed following the epidemic. There are many passages that reflect on society and human nature in very beautiful and touching ways. One of the characters frequently references the Stark Trek quote “survival is not enough”, which perfectly encapsulates the drive of the survivors to not just survive, but to continue to live and to make the world into something that resembles what they remember and long for.
The final thing I loved about this novel and that stood out for me was the story-within-a-story of Dr. Eleven. Nathan Burton designed one of the cover editions for Station Eleven, and also produced a very cool cover for the Station Eleven graphic novel created by the character Miranda. I require this to be written and published in the real world immediately, please and thank you.