Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, opens with the death of a famous actor, Arthur Leander, while on stage playing King Lear. The theatre is in Toronto and outside a snowstorm is approaching. Witnesses to the actor’s collapse, along with those close to them, form the cast of characters the story will swirl around as it moves backwards and forwards along a timeline spanning several decades. Arthur’s deathday is also the day the Georgia Flu arrives in North America, carried in by passengers traversing the world by aircraft. The known and accepted modern world is about to radically change.
Shakespeare lived in a London coping with recurring outbreaks of plague. The virulent illness that wipes out most of the population in the contemporary setting of this tale is even more devastating. Survivors are few and basic infrastructure soon fails. Systems taken for granted – tap water, electricity, mechanised transport, medication, long distance communication – are no longer available. Food must be grown or hunted locally. Items such as clothing and weapons are scavenged from the remnants of the lost civilisation.
Twenty years later a company of musicians and players travels between small communities in the Great Lakes area providing entertainment – mostly classical music and Shakespearean plays. Their mantra is ‘survival is insufficient’ and they are usually welcomed as a distraction from the limited locality people now inhabit to stay safe. The dangers inherent in the early years, after the pandemic decimated North America’s population, have largely receded. Still, though, there are those who will kill to attain their own skewed agenda. Amongst them is the Prophet whose acolytes believe their names were inscribed in the Book of Life, and that those who died were being punished for their sins. This is not the only cult in the slowly recovering territory.
When the travelling players encounter the Prophet they do not heed the warnings until it is too late to avoid the effects of falling under his gaze.
The backstories to key characters are presented, weaving them together. Celebrity and success are explored alongside ambition and various relationships. An underlying theme is one of regret when one’s actions and life trajectory are considered with hindsight. What turns out to be important may not be that which demanded so much time and effort.
Although quite obviously dystopian, I found the story uplifting. Those living in the small communities mostly help each other, working for the common good. There are dislikes and transgressions – people remain flawed and some do terrible things. With man’s footprint on earth limited, however, nature thrives amongst the ruins of his former creations.
The writing is fluid and compelling. Moments of reflection and tension are well balanced, easily maintaining reader engagement. The story is immersive and consistent, with pleasing touches such as the recurring comic book motif. The denouement pulls key threads together whilst allowing for ongoing speculation.
With a more literary bent than many novels in the genre this could appeal to those who normally eschew fantasy fiction. I found it an enjoyable and satisfying read.
Station Eleven is published by Picador.
My copy of this book was given to me by my daughter.