Mandel’s “Station Eleven” is post-apocalyptic action that spans over twenty or so years and tells a story of characters interconnected by events that take place a day before the apocalypse triggered by Georgia flu. The story starts off in a pre-apocalyptic world, in a Toronto theater where Arthur Leander drops dead while performing King Lear. This small tragedy is a precursor to a larger scale apocalypse that awaits the characters in that theater and the whole world. In this small theater is a girl, Kristen, who witnesses Arthur’s death and also becomes a protagonist of the novel. After twenty or so years we see her and a group of performing artists called Symphony, traversing post-apocalyptic landscapes and performing for small settlements.
Throughout the book Mandel introduces about a dozen more characters that are connected in one way or another and keeps the mystery of the connections for as long as she needs, keeping the reader guessing throughout the novel. She connects lives of her characters with a small comic book called “Station Eleven” written by the wife of Arthur, the deceased character. It tells a story of Dr. Eleven who left the uninhabitable Earth, trying to survive on his spaceship. One of the lines in the comic: “I stood looking over my damaged home and tried to forget the sweetness of life on Earth,” seems to be the overarching point and question that Mandel poses. Characters see their world collapse, but still cling to the idea of the old world. They treasure little artifacts like TV Guides, gossip magazines, and performing arts in order not to forget what they have lost. The book tries to focus on the idea of living rather than simply surviving, for which they need art. In many ways, this book is Mandel’s ode to art and entertainment.
Although the book is considered to be post-apocalyptic action, half, if not more, of its events take place before the catastrophe, alternating between the post Georgia u deserted world and the regular life of Arthur. For a hardcore science fiction/apocalyptic literature lover, Arthur’s world would have ruined the book because it is basically literary fiction. But Mandel chooses to do so to make a point, that even in a world destroyed by disaster, it is possible to have a hope and live, instead of surviving, while Arthur cannot manage to do so in a regular world.
In her Arthur C. Clarke Award winning novel, Mandel manages to mesh a storyline of several seemingly unconnected characters, without making it look overly artificial. It is both well-written and well-paced, with connections between the characters so interesting and often poetic you can barely put the book down. Even with about a dozen characters Mandel manages to tell each and every one of their stories in just about 300 pages.