As I read Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, I was impressed with an overwhelming sense of gratitude. In a Reddit AMA, the author describes her book as a love letter to the modern age; examining it through its absense. It was one day, when I was reading it and eating ice cream that a thought entered into my head, unbidden – they wouldn’t be able to eat ice cream.
I wanted to write a love letter to the world we find ourselves in. It’s a world where — you got here by subway, and it’s a fast train underground, and we have electric lights, and water comes out of the tap, and we have access to antibiotics. And these are things we totally take for granted! So a way to write about that is to write about their absence. In the way that a requiem is a way of considering something is already gone, it’s a love letter in the form of a requiem. It was a matter of those things coming together over a period of time.
—Emily St. John Mandel, Bustle interview
Station Eleven is set in a post-apocalyptic world, where most of the population has been wiped out by a virus. The few survivors are scattered, creating communities and making homes in abandoned airports, gas stations, and so on. The narration shifts back and forth in time, describing life before and after the virus strikes.
I normally don’t read post-apocalyptic fiction or dystopia, but Station Eleven is an exception to the rule. It is a story that tips close on the scale of literary realism in terms of what might actually happen, how people would react and then survive, in a post-apocalyptic scenario; it isn’t The Hunger Games or Mad Max, which are otherwise pure fantasy. One of the novels that the author cites as an inspiration is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road but she wanted to write something that is hopeful and that she succeeded in. She also has a sense of humour that is uniquely Canadian:
For obvious reasons, very few people have heard of Delano Island. When he tells people in Toronto that he’s from British Columbia, they’ll invarilably say something about how they like Vancouver, as though that glass city four hours and two ferries to the southeast of his childhood home has anything to do with the island of where he grew up. On two separate occasions he’s told people in Los Angeles that he’s from Canada and they’ve asked about igloos. An allegedly well-educated New Yorker once listened carefully to his explanation of where he’s from—southwestern British Columbia, an island between Vancouver Island and the mainland—and then asked, apparently in all seriousness, if this means he grew up near Maine.
It’s a book that I had been meaning to read for a long time and, as soon as I started, I wondered why I had waited so long. Emily St. John Mandel’s prose is wonderful, even cinematic at points – some scenes are particularly memorable, especially the pivotal action in the beginning – it’s as much the story as her writing style, her voice, that pulled me in and kept me there until the last page and beyond; I didn’t want to stop listening to her voice.
I am now going back and reading the rest of her work so far. (I just finished The Singer’s Gun.)
I wholeheartedly recommend Station Eleven to people who like Shakespeare, acting, celebrity culture, comics, and or post-apocalyptic fiction – or for anyone who wants to try reading something outside of their comfort zone.