Book Review: Emily St. John Mandel's "Station Eleven"

May 7, 2015

These days, it seems every writer, producer, and director out there wants to say something about the apocalypse. Whether it’s a TV show full of zombies or a movie about an alien invasion, you just can’t seem to escape the end of the world. "Station Eleven" by Emily St. John Mandel is also about the end of life as we know it, but don’t let that deter you. This book is about more than just survival and desperation. It’s about humanity itself.

"Station Eleven" has received praise both from critics and readers. It was a National Book Award Finalist and one of this year’s Michigan Notable Books. It’s also been selected as the 2015 Great Michigan Read.  Sponsored by the Michigan Humanities Council, the program wants to get everyone from young adult readers to senior citizens excited about reading, and this year’s selection is sure to do that.

At the heart of "Station Eleven" is a group of musicians and actors that call themselves the Traveling Symphony. They are a ragtag caravan that moves along the coast of Lake Michigan performing Shakespeare and Beethoven to the few surviving communities. These scattered settlements are all that remains of the world after a deadly flu wipes out 99 percent of the population. Sometimes the performers are welcomed with open arms and sometimes they are chased off with guns.

One of the main protagonists in this epic novel is an actress in the symphony. We first meet Kirsten as a young girl, playing the role of one of King Lear’s daughters in a performance in Toronto right before the pandemic hits. Her life after the flu has not been an easy one. Like everyone else in the symphony, Kirsten has lost her family. She’s also had to make some tough and violent decisions to survive, as signaled by the two tattoos of knives on her wrist. But despite her losses, Kristen still manages to find joy in the work of the great bard. While she is only one member of a very large cast, in many ways Kirsten represents the spirit of Mendel’s powerful novel.

Yes, "Station Eleven" has conflicts and terrors. It even has a villain called The Prophet with a fanatical following. Luckily for us though, Mandel wrote more than a simple adventure. Instead, she managed to create a book that says something about what makes humanity special: no zombies needed. There is something glorious about the idea that even at the end, the arts survive, still defining what it means to be human. That’s what makes "Station Eleven" stand out from other apocalyptic tales: hope.

"Station Eleven" by Emily St. John Mandel deserves all the accolades it’s received. It is a brilliant book. And if Mandel is right and art survives after the end, my hope is "Station Eleven" will be there as well, a reminder of the power of the arts to inspire, even in the face of adversity.

Scott Southard is the author of the new novel "Permanent Spring Showers" and "A Jane Austen Daydream". You can follow his writing via his blog "The Musings and Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard" at sdsouthard.com.