Book Review – Station Eleven
Book Review, May 2024

Book Review – Station Eleven

By Emily Kiefer

In “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel, we follow the collapse of civilization as we know it.

Though that sounds bleak, the story also serves as a new beginning; one of introspection and the evidence of the enduring power of art. Mandel’s prose tells tales from before and after a devastating pandemic wipes out 99.6% of the planet’s population, elegantly weaving together the lives of a cast of characters whose threads intersect in an unexpected web. This is a true tale of human resistance, a real what-if. What would happen if such a devastating event swept up nations? How would I, the reader, attempt to survive?

At its core, “Station Eleven” is a meditation on the human condition – our resilience, our capacity for kindness amidst incredible circumstances, and our relentless pursuit of meaning in a world that often seems devoid of it. Through the lens of a post-apocalyptic landscape, Mandel crafts a story that is darkly haunting and yet holds a core spark of hope. With each passing chapter, this book reminds us of the fragility of civilization and the endurance of human creativity through such utter devastation. 

As the reader gets to know several core characters from both the past and present, we learn more about their inner lives and resilience. Though the massive catastrophe is the backdrop, these personal stories are a beacon amidst such hopelessness. These people show us how it is possible to hold onto one’s humanity and even find joy within extremely dark times.

Twenty years after the pandemic struck down civilization, a group of characters tour the barren landscape of what was once the area around Lake Michigan, all while performing elaborate Shakespeare plays with musical accompaniment. Though some in their group ask themselves why they do such frivolous performances for a world hell-bent upon survival, the answer becomes clear: Humans need more than just the act of surviving. We need enjoyment; we need hope to continue on. And these people, self-named “The Traveling Symphony,” give the scarce populations a spark of the old world; something unnecessary, yet a distraction. A slice of comfort. 

Though published in 2014, the novel makes a stunning impact when read today in the context of our own experienced global pandemic. Although this fictional pandemic was on a much higher scale, the themes hit home for anyone who was affected by COVID-19, which is nearly the entire planet’s population. That is why, for myself and many readers, it strongly makes one appreciate life on today’s earth and everything we take for granted.

Public gatherings, the warmth of hugs, having a group of friends over for a boisterous meal; these are things we and the characters in “Station Eleven” lost. Even electricity was no more in this fictional world. So yes, today’s life may quite often seem bleak. Yet, Mandel’s poignant novel illuminated the appreciation I feel for being able to still experience the simple luxuries of human existence that have not yet been taken from us. It is indeed a contemplative reminder of our shared humanity in a world with so much darkness. I recommend this story to anyone who desires a powerful reminder of gratitude.

May 9, 2024

About Author

emily Emily Kiefer, frequent Vashon visitor, reads 80 books a year. She loves perusing the book shops, and calls the Lavender Farm her favorite place on the Island.