It’s a telling sign of how much everyday life has shifted during the Covid-19 pandemic when an author publicly discourages people from reading her book. “Maybe wait a few months” Emily St. John Mandel responded on Twitter to a suggestion that people read her 2014 novel Station Eleven.
Make no mistake, Station Eleven is a grim book that should be approached with caution, especially in the midst of a public health crisis. It not only explores a pandemic, but a pandemic that wipes out 99% of the Earth’s population. Even more chilling, the parallels to Covid-19 and the deadly bird flu in Station Eleven are real: what starts as a localized epidemic quickly sweeps the globe through international travel. Although the Georgian Flu in Station Eleven is much deadlier than Covid-19, the limitations of governments and medical experts to stop its spread are especially prescient in our age of social distancing.
But for those willing to forge ahead, Station Eleven proves to be an impactful exploration of the importance of culture in the face of crisis. In it we follow a small cast of characters, some of whom survive the plague and others who perish, tied together by an aging actor who dies just before the pandemic hits. They include other actors, the actor’s close friends and loved ones, and a man training to be a paramedic who is there during the actor’s final moments.
The trauma of the pandemic endures in scars on the landscape and in the memories of the surviving characters. But what makes this novel so special is that it’s a survival story on a small, local scale. The bulk of the novel takes place twenty years after the pandemic in the tiny, rebuilding communities around the Great Lakes.
Station Eleven includes harrowing, often graphic, depictions of the chaos and destruction of the pandemic. Although its most brutal images remain with me weeks later, what ultimately had greater impact was the book’s surprisingly uplifting ruminations on the preciousness of things we may have in the past taken for granted. It’s a lesson that’s easily accessible now, and one that has helped me approach this time of limitation with gratitude for the many things we still have, and for the beauty of the culture we share.
--reviewed by Emily W - Sequoya Library