Station Eleven

By Emily St. John Mandel

(Knopf Doubleday, $24.95, 352 pages)

Who is this author?

From her author photo, Emily St. John Mandel appears to be a slight and almost child-like, and it is not a surprise to learn she studied contemporary dance in her native Canada. But she is no delicate gamine when it comes to her novels. Station Eleven was a 2014 National Book Award finalist, and her first three — Last Night in Montreal, The Singer’s Gun, and The Lola Quartet —were Indie Next picks. The Singer’s Gun also won the 2014 Prix Mystere de la Critique in France. Now living in New York City with her husband, she is a staff writer for The Millions, and her fiction has appeared in such anthologies as The Best American Mystery Stories 2013 and Venice Noir. You can learn more about this writer at

What is this book about?

In an unintentionally grim coincidence, Mandel’s fourth novel, about a plague called the Georgia Flu that kills of all but one percent of the world’s inhabitants, was released in September, just as widespread – and often unjustified – panic set in over the Ebola virus. The book became a New York Times bestseller, not just because of the newly heightened interest in devasting plagues, but because of its beautifully written and cleverly constructed story, that begins just as the disease begins its rapid-fire, world-wide destruction of life as we know it. The story covers the next 20 years or so, and also offers flashbacks to times before the deadly onslaught of the Georgia Flu. It gives us a world without electricity and the electronic devices that feed off it, without modern medicine or means of traveling, where a makeshift museum of civilization blossoms in an abandoned airport, and where a ragtag group of actors called the Traveling Symphony roam the Great Lakes area, bringing the universal and timeless magic of Shakespeare and music to the remnant that has survived. Their motto comes from Star Trek: “Because survival is insufficient.” They are a force for good, but violent cults offer darker, disturbing things for the desperate to believe in. The book tells a frightening story, but in the end, its message is one of hope, not doom.

Why you’ll like it:

“Station Eleven” is timely and tautly written and is the kind of book that commands you to stop and think about life in all its mysteries and to be thankful for what you have. Yes, it will scare you, but also will enthrall you, because of the beauty of Mandel’s prose and the underlying message that some of what humanity has created is indestructible and though altered, will survive.

Here is what the author has written about why she wrote this book:

“. . .  It was also partly that I wanted to write a love letter to the modern world—the high-speed trains, internet, antibiotics, electricity, cell phones, all of these wonderfully useful things that we take for granted. I’ve always loved post-apocalyptic novels, and it occurred to me that one way to consider the modern world would be to write about its absence.

“. . . Also, it seemed to me that there are some interesting parallels between Shakespeare’s time and the post-pandemic era about which I was writing, so as I continued revising Station Eleven, it began to seem more and more natural that the company would focus exclusively on Shakespeare. In Shakespeare’s era, theatre was often a matter of traveling companies moving from town to town, performing by candlelight. Also, he lived in a time and a place that was haunted by recurring episodes of bubonic plague, and you see it here and there in his texts.

“. . . I didn’t write the book with a message in mind, but it wouldn’t be unreasonable to see the book as a suggestion that perhaps we could all stand to be a little more mindful of the fragility of civilization, and perhaps slightly more appreciative of the technological marvels that surround us. Isn’t it wonderful to have electricity? It’s something I very much appreciate, personally.”

What others are saying:

In a starred review, Kirkus says: “Survivors and victims of a pandemic populate this quietly ambitious take on a post-apocalyptic world where some strive to preserve art, culture and kindness.  her fourth novel, Mandel moves away from the literary thriller form of her previous books but keeps much of the intrigue. The story concerns the before and after of a catastrophic virus called the Georgia Flu that wipes out most of the world’s population. On one side of the timeline are the survivors, mainly a traveling troupe of musicians and actors and a stationary group stuck for years in an airport. On the other is a professional actor, who dies in the opening pages while performing King Lear, his ex-wives and his oldest friend, glimpsed in flashbacks. There’s also the man—a paparazzo-turned-paramedic—who runs to the stage from the audience to try to revive him, a Samaritan role he will play again in later years. Mandel is effectively spare in her depiction of both the tough hand-to-mouth existence of a devastated world and the almost unchallenged life of the celebrity—think of Cormac McCarthy seesawing with Joan Didion. The intrigue arises when the troupe is threatened by a cult and breaks into disparate offshoots struggling toward a common haven. Woven through these little odysseys, and cunningly linking the cushy past and the perilous present, is a figure called the Prophet. Indeed, Mandel spins a satisfying web of coincidence and kismet while providing numerous strong moments, as when one of the last planes lands at the airport and seals its doors in self-imposed quarantine, standing for days on the tarmac as those outside try not to ponder the nightmare within. Another strand of that web is a well-traveled copy of a sci-fi graphic novel drawn by the actor’s first wife, depicting a space station seeking a new home after aliens take over Earth—a different sort of artist also pondering man’s fate and future. Mandel’s solid writing and magnetic narrative make for a strong combination in what should be a breakout novel.

Says Library Journal in its starred review: “Onstage at a Toronto theater, an aging movie star drops dead while performing the title role in King Lear. As the other cast members share a drink at the lobby bar before heading into the snowy night, none can know what horrors await them: “Of all of them at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.” The Shakespearean tragedy unfolds into a real-life calamity just before the entire world is overtaken by a catastrophic flu pandemic that will kill off the vast majority of the population. The narrative is organized around several figures present at the theater that night, and the tale travels back and forth in time, from the years before the pandemic through the following 20 years in a world without government, electricity, telecommunications, modern medicine, or transportation. In this lawless and dangerous new reality, a band of actors and musicians performs Shakespeare for the small communities that have come into existence in the otherwise abandoned landscape. In this unforgettable, haunting, and almost hallucinatory portrait of life at the edge, those who remain struggle to retain their basic humanity and make connections with the vanished world through art, memory, and remnants of popular culture. VERDICT This is a brilliantly constructed, highly literary, postapocalyptic page-turner, and should be a breakout novel for Mandel.

Mandel is an able and exuberant storyteller, and many readers will be won over by her nimble interweaving of her characters’ lives and fates…Station Eleven is as much a mystery as it is a post-apocalyptic tale, and Mandel is especially good at planting clues and raising the kind of plot-thickening questions that keep the reader turning pages…If Station Eleven reveals little insight into the effects of extreme terror and misery on humanity, it offers comfort and hope to those who believe, or want to believe, that doomsday can be survived, that in spite of everything people will remain good at heart, and that when they start building a new world they will want what was best about the old,” says The New York Times Book Review.

Publishers Weekly says:  “Few themes are as played-out as that of post-apocalypse, but St. John Mandel finds a unique point of departure from which to examine civilization’s wreckage, beginning with a performance of King Lear cut short by the onstage death of its lead, Arthur Leander, from an apparent heart attack. On hand are an aspiring paramedic, Jeevan Chaudary, and a young actress, Kirsten Raymonde; Leander’s is only the first death they will witness, as a pandemic, the so-called Georgia Flu, quickly wipes out all but a few pockets of civilization. Twenty years later, Kirsten, now a member of a musical theater troupe, travels through a wasteland inhabited by a dangerous prophet and his followers. Guided only by the graphic novel called Station Eleven given to her by Leander before his death, she sets off on an arduous journey toward the Museum of Civilization, which is housed in a disused airport terminal. Kirsten is not the only survivor with a curious link to the actor: the story explores Jeevan’s past as an entertainment journalist and, in a series of flashbacks, his role in Leander’s decline. Also joining the cast are Leander’s first wife, Miranda, who is the artist behind Station Eleven, and his best friend, 70-year-old Clark Thompson, who tends to the terminal settlement Kirsten is seeking. With its wild fusion of celebrity gossip and grim future, this book shouldn’t work nearly so well, but St. John Mandel’s examination of the connections between individuals with disparate destinies makes a case for the worth of even a single life.”

“Mandel’s spectacular, unmissable new novel is set in a near-future dystopia, after most — seriously, 99.99 percent — of the world’s population is killed suddenly and swiftly by a flu pandemic. (Have fun riding the subway after this one!) The perspective shifts between a handful of survivors, all connected to a famous actor who died onstage just before the collapse. A literary page-turner, impeccably paced, which celebrates the world lost while posing questions about art, fame, and what endures after everything, and everyone, is gone,” says Vulture.

“If you’re planning to write a post-apocalyptic novel, you’re going to have to breathe some new life into it. Emily St. John Mandel does that with her new book, Station Eleven . . . The story is told through several characters, including an A-list actor, his ex-wives, a religious prophet and the Traveling Symphony, a ragtag group of Shakespearean actors and musicians who travel to settlements performing for the survivors. Each bring a unique perspective to life, relationships and what it means to live in a world returned to the dark ages . . . Mandel doesn’t put the emphasis on the apocalypse itself (the chaos, the scavenging, the scientists trying to find a cure), but instead shows the effects it has on humanity. Despite the state of the world, people find reasons to continue . . . Station Eleven will change the post-apocalyptic genre. While most writers tend to be bleak and clichéd, Mandel chooses to be optimistic and imaginative. This isn’t a story about survival, it’s a story about living,” says The Boston Herald.

When is it available?

Copies of “Station Eleven” were due to arrive by November 19 at the Downtown Hartford Public Library. Please check with the library to see if the book is on the shelves.

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