I first heard about Station Eleven, a novel by Emily St. John Mandel, a couple of years ago on Books onthe Nightstand (my favorite of all book podcasts!) and immediately added it to my TBR list. Then, I began hearing about it everywhere: rave reviews, recommendations, just about every Top 10 list for 2014, and as a finalist for The National Book Award. I finally had a chance to read it last month. Believe it or not, it lived up to all that hype (a rare thing) – I absolutely loved this unique and moving novel about art, memory, and survival.
The novel opens at a theater in Toronto where a production of King Lear is in progress, presumably in our time. A famous actor named Arthur Leander is playing the lead, and this version of the play also includes three little girls, playing childhood versions of Lear’s daughters that he sees in a hallucination. In the middle of a show, Arthur clutches his chest and falls to the ground, and a man named Jeevan in the audience (who had some EMS training) jumps out of his seat and onto the stage before most people even realize the actor has had a heart attack. Despite Jeevan’s best efforts, Arthur dies, and one of the little girls, Kirsten, watches the whole thing in shock, an event she will remember vividly for the rest of her life.
That same night, during a snowstorm, the Georgian Flu, a highly virulent infection that started in Eastern Europe, finds its way to Toronto and quickly kills thousands of people. Jeevan gets an early warning from a friend at the hospital and holes up in his brother’s apartment with him, while the rest of the world tries in vain to outrun this horrible disease. Within a short time, approximately 99% of the population has died, and infrastructure throughout the world has crumbled.
Twenty years later, a caravan called The Traveling Symphony, consisting of musicians and actors, travels along Lakes Michigan and Huron, up into Ontario and back south through Michigan. Along the way, they stop at “towns,” wherever people have settled together, to perform mostly classical music and Shakespearean plays. One of the members of the Symphony is Kirsten, now a young woman who has few memories of the time “before.” One of Kirsten’s most treasured possessions is a pair of hand-drawn comic books about an isolated space station called Station Eleven, given to her by Arthur in the months before he died, when he and she had become friends.
The story continues from there, moving back and forth in time, from the main characters in the years leading up to the pandemic, each living their own lives, to the post-apocalyptic world, where the Symphony travels and acts and plays their music. Suspense builds when the Symphony encounters a cult leader in a town they had last visited years ago, who comes after them even after they hastily leave. There have been stories of a small airport, a bit further south than they usually venture, that they hope might offer them sanctuary…though they have no idea what they might find there.
The theme of this beautifully written novel can be summed up simply with the line written on the caravan of the Symphony:
Because survival is insufficient
It’s a suspenseful post-apocalyptic novel about a group of people trying to make a life for themselves in the destroyed world, but it is also about the beauty and necessity of art, even in a world of people struggling just to survive.
What I liked best about this novel, though, is its focus on connections. Moving back and forth in time, peeking in at the lives of a wide variety of characters both before and after the pandemic, there are myriad connections between people, places, and even objects. I loved discovering those connections and seeing them develop, how something that happened decades before the pandemic could still have lasting repercussions 20 years into the post-apocalyptic world. Causes and effects, relationships, and interconnections crisscross this unique novel.
Often, I find that hype of a popular novel can negatively affect my enjoyment of it. If I have heard people rave about “best book I’ve ever read!” and other superlative comments, I often find that my expectations are so high that I am bound to be disappointed when I read the book myself. Not so in this case. I like post-apocalyptic stories, and this one’s combination of art and science fiction sounded appealing, but I was stunned by the beauty of the writing, and all of those unexpected connections that kept surprising – and delighting – me as I read. I never wanted this novel to end. It was one of those rare books that I finished reluctantly, gave a big sigh, and held to my chest in a hug. If we ever do live in a post-apocalyptic world, I hope there will be a Traveling Symphony to feed our minds and hearts.
333 pages, Alfred A. Knopf