It all begins during Act 4 of King Lear. The play is performed at Toronto’s Elgin Theatre, on a stage covered in artificial snow, mirroring the snow that has fallen on the streets of the true city under the skies. An actor collapses. Within days, a few weeks at most, almost everyone in the audience, on stage, backstage and in the streets, bars and shops is dead, claimed by the Georgia Flu. It is estimated that 99% of the world’s population is killed by the disease. The world as we know it ends.
Twenty years later, a troop of actors, the Travelling Symphony, walks the potholed, grass-cracked roads, performing A Midsummer’s Night Dream and other plays to enthusiastic acclaim from communities they happen upon during the vast stretches of very little. The troop of actors, writers and musicians has a slogan, ‘Survival is Insufficient’. In this post-apocalyptic vision it is not enough just to survive. It is more important to live.
Station Eleven is an extraordinary novel. The marketing campaign from Picador has been second to none but Emily St. John Mandel has created a wonderful thing – a novel that is every bit as good as the buzz and excitement proclaim. The book finally arrives on the shop shelves this week, allowing me the perfect opportunity to tell you why I loved this novel so much.
I am a huge fan of post-apocalyptic novels and probably read far too many of them for my own good. But Station Eleven stands out not least because it presents the apocalypse as part of a process, presenting its story in three time frames – life before, during and after. The result couldn’t be more dramatic. As the narrative moves between these three periods, twists pop up to strike us. There are moments of satisfaction as well as pure surprise. The chapters that predate the collapse, a time when planes flew, fridges were cold and phones and lights turned on with a switch, contrast vividly with those set in an abandoned world reclaimed by nature. The structure allows us to watch the familiar become exotic.
The focus of the novel rests with Arthur Leander, an actor who lives a glamorous Hollywood life, his comic-writing wife Miranda, Kirsten, a child actor with a non-speaking role in that key performance of King Lear in Toronto, Jeevan a paparazzi, and Clark, Arthur’s close friend. We meet many other memorable personalities along the path of the Travelling Symphony but we especially learn more and more about these people. Miranda’s love for comics and the world that she’s created in her own ‘Station Eleven’ has such a pull in this desolate future, every bit as much as the Shakespearean splendour evoked by Arthur. While we become very closely attached to Kirsten, whose young life is transformed almost before it had begun by the apocalypse, a place in my reader’s heart belongs to Clark.
I loved reading a novel that found hope in apocalypse. We have that here. It’s not Jeevan alone who can find the good out of the bad. There is something wondrous about a society that is being rebuilt by travelling players. The survival of literature gives hope and here it lives alongside memories of all those aspects of modern life that are gone, objects that one would keep in a museum to life if one could. It all feels both post-modern and medieval, with all the religious and social tension this suggests. The mix is actually rather comforting even when it provokes tension.
Station Eleven is not a long novel but it is rich beyond its length and it is one of the most rewarding novels I’ve read in a long time. It’s an exciting read, full of adventure and puzzles, but it is also such a moving novel. Here are characters enduring the very worst and emerging on the other side – clearly not everyone will survive, the odds are dead set against that, but the narrative ties us to their stories with the utmost skill. The worldbuilding is perfect but it is exceptionally lightly done, built on memories, hopes and dread.
Station Eleven is a fabulous novel, one of the few books that I would read twice in one year and envisage returning to time and time again. I would recommend Station Eleven to anyone, whether you’re a fan of apocalyptic fiction or not. There is so much more to it than that. The hardback is also a beautiful object – perfect.
Also reviewed at Curiosity Killed the Bookworm