By Emily St. John Mandel
An audacious, darkly glittering novel set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse, Station Eleven tells the spellbinding story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.
One snowy night Arthur Leander, a famous actor, has a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo-turned-EMT, is in the audience and leaps to his aid. A child actress named Kirsten Raymonde watches in horror as Jeevan performs CPR, pumping Arthur’s chest as the curtain drops, but Arthur is dead. That same night, as Jeevan walks home from the theater, a terrible flu begins to spread. Hospitals are flooded and Jeevan and his brother barricade themselves inside an apartment, watching out the window as cars clog the highways, gunshots ring out, and life disintegrates around them.
Fifteen years later, Kirsten is an actress with the Traveling Symphony. Together, this small troupe moves between the settlements of an altered world, performing Shakespeare and music for scattered communities of survivors. Written on their caravan, and tattooed on Kirsten’s arm is a line from Star Trek: “Because survival is insufficient.” But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who digs graves for anyone who dares to leave.
Spanning decades, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, this suspenseful, elegiac novel is rife with beauty. As Arthur falls in and out of love, as Jeevan watches the newscasters say their final good-byes, and as Kirsten finds herself caught in the crosshairs of the prophet, we see the strange twists of fate that connect them all. A novel of art, memory, and ambition, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it.
I first acquired this one when it came out and it was very buzz-worthy. I didn’t read it until recently when I was sick with a very bad cold. Not exactly the best conditions for reading a book about a terrible flu pandemic that kills tons and tons of people around the world. Still, I enjoyed this book and couldn’t put it down. Even the leaps in time weren’t enough to shake my enthusiasm. Every character was so richly drawn and engaging. The author seemed equally at home whether the setting was in Canada, Hollywood, an airport, on stage, or this dark, brave new world she’s crafted. Her prose was of the quality of literary fiction, which is beautiful to read. I loved the way everyone was connected to each other and everything in the end. The world after the flu was as bleak and dark a place as any dystopian world of recent years. And Station Eleven, which actually refers to a comic book, is something I wish existed in our world.
The book makes a reference to The Passage by Justin Cronin, which is one of my favorite books and to which this book draws a lot of comparisons. The Passage tells the story of a vampire apocalypse and of the survivors in the years afterward. It’s of the same ilk as Station Eleven: a work of literary fiction that happens to be dabbling in the world of the blockbuster. And in non-literary references, this book will appeal to people who liked Contagion, the movie that came out a few years ago about a worldwide epidemic and starred Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, and a bunch of other famous actors.
The author has written a few other books which I’ll be checking out. I think the others are squarely literary fiction and not this literary fiction-dystopian hybrid, but just the same, I love her style.