Read a newspaper lately, in hand or online? War, famine, global warming and now Ebola — it’s no wonder publishers are publishing and readers are reading a near-glut of novels about the end of the world, or in more concise and even Biblical terms, all things apocalyptic. If the story is about what happens after the above mentioned catastrophes, it’s called post-apocalyptic or dystopian. Are you with me? Sort of like “new math,” you’ll get the hang of it.
Station Eleven, marketed as a post-apocalyptic novel, is a powerful reminder that although the earth we live on may change, and change drastically, humans do not. In fact, they are exactly (good and bad) the same as before whatever happened happened. There are false prophets and murder and mayhem coexisting with love. Bravery and art become dependent on each other. That’s what Mandel’s novel is all about. No matter how tough and bare bones things become, we still need to be bound to one another. What we value, objects, people, and relationships is at the heart of Station Eleven.
The story begins on a stage in a Toronto theatre. The play is “King Lear,” Act 4, and the actor playing Lear is about to stumble and fall against a pillar, clutching his chest and reciting his lines in a barely audible voice. A medic in the first row orchestra section, recognizing the actor is no longer acting, leaps to the stage to render whatever assistance he might. Things take off rapidly and by the time the actor, Arthur Leander, is declared dead from a heart attack the curtain drops and the theatre empties. The reader has some understanding that if, as Shakespeare wrote, “All the world’s a stage,” Arthur, dead or alive, is a major player.
Arthur Leander’s death coincides with a Russian jetliner landing at the Toronto airport. Its passengers, carrying the Georgian Flu, are already clogging local hospitals and infecting everyone. The author wastes no time in introducing some key characters before the world is decimated beyond recognition. We learn of Arthur’s wives, his son, his lover, his friend, the medic, and a child actress playing one of Lear’s daughters as a child. Along with these characters are the objects they have collected and valued. Now we fast-forward twenty years post-pandemic to follow the Traveling Symphony, a company of actors and musicians living in a horse-drawn caravan of old trucks, bringing music and Shakespeare to scattered, art-starved communities.
The author skillfully goes back and forth in time, linking present and past relationships, events and possessions as we follow the Traveling Symphony, finding its place in a world with an unsure future, both scary and hopeful. No spoilers, but hands-down, Station Eleven is one of my all-time favorites. The writing is so compelling that as I was going back over my post-it notes to write this review, I would find myself reading entire chapters all over again. You may put the book down when you finish it, but not without looking around yourself to see what and who would fill the story of your life. It is the telling which unites our future and our past and Emily St. John Mandel has written one very good story. – Sunny Solomon
Also available by Emily St. John Mandel: The Lola Quartet; The Singers Gun; Last Night in Montreal.