Confession: post-apocalyptic stories are not my favorite genre and can be really hit or miss with me. Despite the overall rave reviews, I've never read Cormac McCarthy's The Road because it sounds too grim and bleak for me. I watched the first season of The Walking Dead and gave up when I found it too depressing. (And I'm a fan of the Cure and Joy Division, so it's not like I only like things bright and cheerful.) Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, however, is very definitely not a miss.
Beautiful, heartfelt writing and strong, complex, sympathetic characters keep this story from becoming too bleak. As dark, tense, and sad as things can get, the author never gives up on hope, friendship, and the fragile beauty of life. In Station Eleven, even the smallest gesture can have significant ramifications and every person matters. And so, despite the terrifying premise, Station Eleven ultimately filled me with joy. It reminded me not to take anything for granted and to live as intently as possible.
Station Eleven opens in Toronto in the present, just before an extremely powerful flu strain kills of the majority of people in North America. With no one to maintain power plants or refine new fuel, the world quickly devolves into a lonely, dangerous place without electricity or working cars or planes. Food is limited to hunting, gathering, and farming. The smallest infection can be lethal. The roads between settlements are rife with bandits and worse. Children grow up with no knowledge of supermarkets, air travel, or the internet beyond what they're told in stories. And a charismatic, dangerous prophet is wandering the land, terrorizing anyone who won't join his cult.
But the novel doesn't just give us a weary, brutal, post-apocalyptic world. It jumps around in time, from a past full of hope and promise to the anxious days just after the flu has struck to the enervated, violent future, following the lives of a once-famous actor, his first wife and his best friend, a paparazzi photographer-turned-emergency medic, and a young woman who grew up in the worn-out, post-flu North America. Their lives are all intertwined by circumstance and strange connections, linked by a mysterious graphic novel called..."Station Eleven."
This is one of the best novels I've read all year. I highly recommend it, even if you don't normally gravitate towards science fiction or post-apocalyptic stories.