Shakespeare at the end of the world: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

station elevenAt the heart of Station Eleven sits a great idea: when a fatal virus sweeps the world and kills 99% of the population, those who survive still want to watch Shakespeare.

Mandel structures the novel beautifully, alternating between the pre-virus and post-virus world. The timeline juxtaposes past and present, skipping around between half a dozen viewpoints and slowly revealing connections between them. I usually hate multiple viewpoints, but Mandel’s construction is deft: because we rarely return to the same character, the book almost feels like a series of interconnected short stories. Everything clicks together without being contrived.

The title comes from a series of comics drawn by one of the characters, telling the tale of survivors stranded on an artificial planet called – you guessed it – Station Eleven. The themes obvious in Station Eleven (the comic) likewise form the foundation of Station Eleven the novel: survival, passion, hope, nostalgia for a lost world, and ultimately conflict over what the new world should look like.

For some, a suddenly empty North America means it’s time to stick together and work hard – frontierism at its finest. Small farming communities spring up, as close-knit and fitful as families. Others make permanent camps in the place they were stranded, and a quarantined airport becomes a city.

The present narrative follows a travelling theatre troupe dedicated to preserving and performing Shakespeare and classical music. They’re usually able to barter for the supplies they need, but between towns they watch the road closely for bandits and pray small injuries don’t become infected.

Their lifestyle only becomes more dangerous when they manage to offend a cult leader – and find him unwilling to give up the chase for righteous revenge. There are so few people left in the world that the victor in this power struggle may very well affect the shape of the world to come. The smallest detail could decide who survives, and who is forgotten.

And it does come down to the tiniest of details – a single cherished object, a short phrase, a moment of hesitation. Everything comes together; each character is connected; every narrative stacks on the next. I read one review that called the novel “too pat” in that regard, but I think there’s an important difference in connecting storylines and resolving storylines. Mandel builds tension slowly and beautifully, never revealing more than she has to; when the time comes to bring the details together, everything clicks together with a sigh. The tension releases effortlessly. Not everything is resolved, but everything makes sense. There is serious skill in that fine line.

I’m a sucker for a post-apocalyptic book, so Station Eleven was right up my alley. I wish I picked it up sooner – especially since the only reason I left it so long was that the cover made me think it was a YA book about summer camp. (Yeah, I’m kicking myself.)

The header for this post is from the cover of the UK edition, designed by Nathan Burton. 

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2 thoughts on “Shakespeare at the end of the world: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

    • I think there’s definitely a split in post-apocalyptic fiction between character-driven novels and action-driven novels. Stick to authors with strong characters and you’ll be just fine! I always suggest Oryx and Crake by Atwood, but that does get pretty deep into scifi territory.
      Thanks for stopping by!

      Liked by 1 person

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