Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven is a thrillingly believable yet quirky take on a post-apocalyptic world. Her deft depiction of the climate of fear and panic that takes hold of people in the midst of a pandemic feels all too real in light of the disproportionate anxiety after SARS, swine flu, and most recently Ebola (among many others!).
The novel takes place in two distinct worlds before and after the Georgia Flu, a devastating, rapidly spreading, flu pandemic that kills most of the world’s population. The story begins in a Toronto theater, where Hollywood star Arthur Leander, playing the role of King Lear, has a fatal heart attack. Onstage, an audience member jumps forward to try and save him, as Kirsten, a child actress watches in tears.
Station Eleven jumps between the pre-flu world and Year Twenty after global collapse, when survivors have banded together into settlements. There are no countries or cities as we know them. It is then that we meet Kirsten again, in the world that emerges post Georgia Flu. She is part of the Traveling Symphony, a group of traveling musicians and actors who perform at each town they reach.
Mandel carefully develops connections between the two time frames as the novel progresses, from Jeevan, who jumps onstage to save Arthur Leander, to Kirsten, and Miranda, the creator behind a hand-drawn comic called Station Eleven which survives the catastrophic transformation of the universe, serving as a bridge between the new and old worlds. In the same way, Mandel’s Station Eleven is the dreamy and gripping link between her characters – from tales of Arthur’s life to Jeevan’s.
Through them, Mandel emphasizes the significance of individual rather than collective destiny in the wake of global disaster, in a way that simultaneously dampens the urgency and panic surrounding them.
Station Eleven is an exploration of memory and loss, nostalgia and yearning. Mandel recognizes the role of art in establishing our impressions of the world, and carefully uses it in her writing to evoke the feeling of life as it slips through our fingers, the memories simultaneously vivid and fleeting.
In Year Twenty, Kirsten, is interviewed about her memories of life before the pandemic, and says that the new reality is most difficult for those who can remember the world as it was. "The more you remember, the more you've lost," she explains with a hint of wisdom and sorrow – a fine balance that Station Eleven elicits effortlessly.
This brioche french toast and berry compote is sweet and tart, a twist on the traditional, much as Station Eleven is a twist on the all too familiar tale of a post-apocalyptic world.
BRIOCHE FRENCH TOAST
For the compote (feel free to use other berries as desired):
- 2 cups sliced strawberries
- 2 cups blueberries
- 1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons sugar
- 2 tablespoons water
For the french toast:
- 6 eggs
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 1/3 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
- 10-12 slices of brioche bread
- Unsalted butter
For the berry compote:
Combine the berries in a saucepan with ¼ cup sugar and water. Bring to a simmer. Cook over moderate heat until the berries are softened and the sugar is dissolved.
For the french toast:
In a large bowl, whisk the eggs with the heavy cream, 3 tablespoons of sugar, the cinnamon, and allspice. Transfer to a 9-by-13-inch baking dish.
Heat a large cast-iron griddle and lightly butter it.
One at a time, dip each slice of brioche in the egg mixture until moist (not soggy).
Place the slice of bread on the griddle and cook over moderate heat, turning once, until golden and cooked through.
Transfer the french toast to a baking sheet, cover loosely with foil, and keep warm in oven at 225º as you continue cooking the other pieces of french toast.
Serve the french toast with the berry compote, and either crème fraiche or maple syrup if desired.