My visit to ‘Station Eleven’

  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014) Audiobook – Kirsten Potter, narrator (Random House Audio)
  • In 40 words or less: A famed actor collapses on stage as a worldwide flu pandemic that destroys civilization begins.  Twenty years later, the survivors struggle. Despite desperate conditions, they cherish fragments of life before and seek family and community connections in their new world.
  • Genre: Post-apocalyptic Science Fiction
  • Locale: Toronto, Great Lakes region
  • Time: Near future
  • Read this if you think post-apocalyptic fiction is not your thing. A beautifully crafted story with compelling characters that will likely surprise you.

I admit it. I steer way clear of classic science fiction and dystopic literature. There are so many books I’ll never have the chance to read in my preferred genres so why bother. Last month we took a road trip to visit family in South Carolina. As usual, we explored out of the way places (good material for another post) and avoided radio roulette by downloading audiobooks. I’d been hearing about Station Eleven for two years and thought it might bridge the differences in our reading tastes. It turned out to be a great decision.

Emily St. John Mandel uses the stage to open Station Eleven. Arthur Leander, a noted actor, is starring in an unusual production of King Lear which includes a few child actors. During the performance, he collapses in full view of the audience and one of the young girls. Despite the best efforts of an EMT in attendance, he dies. The lives of these three characters – Arthur, Kirsten, and Jeevan- are inexorably linked across more than three decades, from the earliest days of Arthur’s film career to twenty years after the earth’s population was virtually destroyed in a flu pandemic.

Jeevan, the EMT, leaves the theater into a Toronto snowstorm and learns of the virulent flu from a doctor watching patients sicken and die in the emergency room. With great descriptive detail, Mandel follows Jeevan as he stockpiles cart after cart of supplies from a closing store and then drags them to his brother’s high-rise apartment where they seal themselves in, hoping to escape unscathed.

Almost twenty years later, Kirsten is traveling the Great Lakes Region with a group of musicians and actors that perform concerts and Shakespeare when they encounter other small groups of survivors. Without electricity or other measures of modernity, daily life requires foraging and scavenging through buildings and cars abandoned as the owners died. Kirsten has blocked out the early years after the pandemic but continues to seek out information about Arthur, who showed her great kindness and gave her a book that’s her constant companion.

Also traveling the region is a young cult leader known as the Prophet, controlling his followers by force and intimidation. The encounters between the groups are classic good vs evil, with some twists. And it all began with Arthur.

Station Eleven is filled with comfortable individuals. Fully-drawn, they are far from perfect beings. Heroic actions come from innate humanity and personal growth, not superpowers. This combination of story and character makes this a genre-busting winner. The audiobook version, narrated by Kirsten Potter, seamlessly shifted from character to character allowing the story to shine brightly.