With a smorgasbord of survival tales at our fingertips, Station Eleven has already been compared to the likes of The Walking Dead. But St. John Mandel’s post-post-apocalyptic offering is as familiar as it is enthralling.
Jeevan Chaudhary, a paramedic-in-training, is watching King Lear in the Elgin Theatre when famed actor, Arthur Leander, suffers a heart attack on stage. Jeevan leaps to the boards to perform CPR, and the story breaks into a jog.
But that medical emergency is a speck in what is to come: people are falling ill, and Jeevan receives a tense phone call from best friend and medic, Hua, who foreshadows catastrophe and begs Jeevan to flee town. The stakes are high, we care about Jeevan, and are riveted.
Then St. John Mandel takes an epic risk and pitches us twenty years into the future, well beyond the fall-out of the pandemic. (Which feels akin to writing: ‘Luke, I am your father. And one day you’ll kiss your sister—Dude.’) Not only are we robbed of seeing the sweeping annihilation of civilisation, but we grieve the loss of Jeevan, whom she places on the backburner.
Persistent readers will be rewarded, because St. John Mandel is a boss at stitching characters and clues over space and time. A trained dancer herself, the tale is told from the perspective of five narrators—two of whom are actors—and a wandering band of entertainers known as The Symphony. Shakespeare, performed in stolen costumes with toothless grins, to wiped-out villages overrun by gangs and sociopathic leaders, adds fun and amplifies the tension.
Station Eleven’s greatest accomplishment, however, is the intimacy with which we are invited to confront loss a generation after loss (you will seize at the memory of electricity and then you will seize at how much you just seized).
A haunting solitude echoes through the narrators, even when they are surrounded by lovers, family, and friends. Station Eleven hits us with a brick of existentialism: we are alone, always. Sometimes that is our weakness. It can also be our strength.