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Toronto Book Awards: Station Eleven

September 18, 2015

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Please join us in welcoming back, for the final time in this series, our 2015 Toronto Book Awards blogger, Kim MacMullen! Kim has been reading and reviewing the finalists for this year’s Toronto Book Awards, which will be awarded on October 15, 2015. Make sure to check out all of her stellar past reviews on our blog so you can be well informed at the readings on festival day!

The final review is of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Knopf Doubleday). Mandel will not be in attendance at this year’s festival, and editor Jennifer Lambert will read in her place. You can attend the reading for Station Eleven at The Word On The Street at Harbourfront Centre on September 27th, at 1:30 PM at the Toronto Book Awards Tent.

With the abundance of post-apocalyptic stories filling bookshelves, theatres, and TV screens over the past few years, it can be difficult to craft a new approach that stands out and addresses the potential end of humanity in a way that doesn’t feel derivative or overdone. Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven does just that, successfully shaking up the post-apocalyptic genre with the unique collective story of a seemingly unrelated group of characters who each have to navigate the post-pandemic world while determining what, beyond survival, defines and is necessary for human life.

Opening with the on-stage but very real death of aging actor Arthur Leander during a performance of King Lear in Toronto, the book jumps from this individual tragedy to widespread catastrophe in next to no time. On his walk home from the theatre, Jeevan Chaudhary, the paramedic-in-training who jumped from the audience to perform CPR on Arthur, receives a call from a doctor friend urging him to leave the city immediately—his hospital is battling a strain of flu that he is convinced will lead to an epidemic. The Georgian Flu will go on to wipe out upwards of 99% of humanity, leaving individual survivors who must fend for themselves or join up with others in makeshift communities. Kirsten Raymonde, who as a child actor was present for Arthur’s death, joins the Travelling Symphony after a devastating period of time that she has all but eliminated from her memory. The Symphony travels from town to town performing music and Shakespeare’s plays, because, as is written on the side of their caravan and tattooed on Kirsten’s arm, “survival is not sufficient.”

Jumping from pre- to post- (but not mid-) pandemic frequently, Mandel reveals the story and its interconnections gradually. As several key revelations are made, including the role of a comic book from which the novel takes its name, it becomes apparent that, like Lear, Arthur is the central point around which the story revolves, catalyzing the events affecting the main characters in various and lasting ways. From Jeevan and Kirsten to Arthur’s best friend, Clark, son, Tyler, and first wife, Miranda, common threads connect these characters in surprising ways, long after Arthur died on that stage in Toronto.

Station Eleven is a careful book, economical in its language and measured in its narrative choices. Events that could have been sensationalized and treated with the subtlety of a summer blockbuster are presented without bombast or emotionally manipulative embellishment, and Mandel trusts her readers to react accordingly, never explicitly telling them how to feel. This is not to say, however, that it is a cold or bleak or detached book—on the contrary, it is often warm and sweet and lyrical and hopeful. It plays with genre just as much as it plays with time, deftly jumping back and forth across the line dividing popular and literary writing, using the best of both to craft something that feels entertaining yet substantial, and readable yet weighty. Asking the familiar questions about what you would do if the end were nigh (who would you call first? Would you run or would you hide? What if you were trapped on a different continent?), Mandel quietly offers her own answer, suggesting that even after the bottom has dropped out and the world has all but ended, you can still find something to cling to and to live for and to share with others who need something to live for, too—otherwise you’re just surviving.


Kim MacMullen is a copywriter from Barrie, ON. She has a degree in English Literature from Laurentian University, and, after spending two years in Toronto, she now lives in Barrie with her husband and their substantial collections of books, sports memorabilia, and video games.


In Station Eleven, who are the 5 people connected by fate? Find the clues on our website, and send the answer to to be entered in a draw to win a prize pack of all the shortlisted Toronto Book Awards books, signed by the authors!

This is your final chance to enter in to the contest for the prize pack! Make sure to send your answers before the deadline.

Contest closes September 23, 2015.