Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven is the first of the five books shortlisted for CBC Radio’s Canada Reads (an annual Canadian “battle of the books”) that I will be reviewing for the Yellowknifer, and it was certainly an interesting place to start.
With this year’s Canada Reads topic being “one book to shift your perspective,” Station Eleven fits right in, with plot twists sprinkled throughout that reward those paying close attention. And if you want to get your Canada Reads fix without cracking the spine of a book, it was adapted into an HBO mini-series of the same name.
Station Eleven is a pandemic story penned in the mid-2010s that explores the personal and societal repercussions of the mysterious Georgia Flu which feels like a worst-case-scenario version of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Told in fits and starts, Mandel’s apocalyptic story tentatively dips in and out of the lives of its various characters: an ex-paparazzo who lives through the death of the celebrity age, a man stuck in a near-abandoned airport whose nostalgia for the pre-apocalypse inspires the creation of a Museum of Civilization and two children who grow up in the post-apocalyptic world with only the obscure comic book Station Eleven to keep them company, among others. All the while, each character is facing the looming threat of a so-called prophet whose religious cult intends to repopulate the earth in increasingly menacing ways after the devastation of the flu pandemic. Weaving the threads of these lives together over half a century, picking up at various points pre- and post-pandemic, Mandel’s novel is a fascinating exploration of how the lives of strangers can intersect in the most intimate ways.
Canadian pandemic literature, like The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue or The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline, tends to emphasize a sense of distance – either personal, in the sense of alienation from friends and family that may come with a pandemic, or geographic, through physical isolation and communities closing their borders. Both senses of isolation are chronicled in Station Eleven but Mandel painstakingly draws threads through the lives of the characters in this book to create an atlas of the strange, shocking or even mundane ways that their lives intersect.
Around the book’s midpoint, at the height of the isolation that the fictional Georgia Flu pandemic causes, one of the characters reminisces about the interpersonal connection lost as forms of technology like smartphones and computers slowly went dark in the absence of electricity. While Clark used to think about people on their devices as being disconnected from the world, in retrospect he notices that they were never alone, instead tapping into a grid of information and community on a global scale. Yet, just like he was blind at the time to the connection that electronics created, Clark is unaware of the unseen ways these connections are still happening — slower, taking years to fulfil, yet there nonetheless. Even in its darkest moments, by carefully planting questions like ‘what is the meaning of a dog named after an obscure comic book character?’ Mandel establishes Station Eleven as a testament to the unseen ways in which human connection prevails.