Books: On Station Eleven

If I were to tell you that a book about the end of the world (as we know it) could somehow leave you optimistic and encouraged, I doubt you’d believe me. But the incredible novel Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, would prove me right, despite its often harrowing twists and turns.


A finalist for this year’s National Book Award, Station Eleven takes what has come to be a standard apocalyptic trope (world ends, people flee, all hope’s lost, everything’s bleak) and turns it upside down. True, in Mandel’s imaginary world (which, incidentally, does not feel too far off from our own current world) a fast-moving flu wipes out an enormous percentage of the earth’s population and people do indeed flee, into seemingly hopeless, bleak times.

But the similarity to other books of this kind ends there, thanks to her brilliant character development, intricate plot, and the overall feeling of the story. Several characters’ lives unfold before us, as time jumps back and forth, and we learn about them both before and after the pandemic. Included in this number is a huge Hollywood star, a photographer-turned-paramedic, a Shakespearean stage actor, and the members of what’s known here as the Traveling Symphony.

After the collapse of civilization, with people spread out into small groups and communities, the musicians and actors in the Traveling Symphony go from place to place to perform concerts and Shakespearean plays. In a time when most people are struggling to just merely survive, the Symphony’s belief in the importance of preserving beauty and art is admirable – and often risky. The members want to give their fellow human beings who made it through the worst of it, as they did, a reason to remember what was beautiful and meaningful about the world before the pandemic.

Mandel writes with such precision and care, and her book is paced perfectly, so that you’re compelled to just keep reading, to keep finding out what happens to these characters you grow to care about so much. She has you rooting for them, and more than that, rooting for art and literature and culture, and hoping that maybe those things would actually endure in similar circumstances.

Whereas some other apocalyptic stories can seem so spare and so dark, Mandel gives this book rich details and a lifelike feeling. Of course, her observations of what the end of the world would be like are, naturally, unsettling and upsetting. They have to be. But that’s not the end of it here. She gives us so much more than that, in this beautiful and ultimately hopeful book.

(Originally published here: