Knopf Doubleday: 9/9/2014
eBook, 352 pages
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.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is a very highly recommended fresh take on a pre- and post-apocalyptic novel.
Station Eleven opens with the death from an apparent heart attack of an actor, Arthur Leander, while he is onstage performing King Lear in Toronto. Jeevan Chaudary, who would like to be an EMT, jumps up to help him. He later notices child actress, Kirsten Raymonde, watching in the wings, and sits with her until her handler arrives. This was the night that the Georgia Flu hits. With one of the fastest incubation periods ever seen, the spread of the flu marks the start of a deadly pandemic that will leave few survivors.
Twenty years later Kirsten is now traveling and performing with the caravans of the Traveling Symphony, an itinerant troop of musicians and actors who travel to sparsely populated small towns to play classical music and perform Shakespearean plays. The land is dangerous, though, and a new man who calls himself a prophet is on the loose.
Mandel deftly juxtaposes the present day hard-scrabble existence of the survivors with flashbacks on the past life of the actor Arthur Leander. There are several characters who all have a connection to Leander and the sections of the novel that deal with his life pre-apocalypse show all those connections. These sections stand in stark contrast with the current conditions and what happens to people after his death. The contrast between the privileged celebrity past with the grim present is well handled and gives Station Eleven a unique outlook on its exploration of destiny in a genre that is getting crowded with lesser contenders.
The title of the novel comes from a graphic novel Leander's first wife, Miranda, makes and later prints off in a limited edition. Leander gives copies to young Kirsten, who still has them 20 years later in the post-apocalyptic sections.
Station Eleven is an extremely well written and all-consuming novel that never lags and should keep you captivated to the end. Those who enjoy literary fiction should appreciate this along with the fans of dystopian fiction. We can have art simply for art's sake - and know that art has value that may not be measurable but, perhaps, can endure even the collapse of civilization. In this end of the known world, art, music, poetry, and theater all survive in some remnants.
The chapter on an "Incomplete List" of what was gone should get everyone thinking about what would be gone. Currently with the Ebola outbreak (and seriously, does anyone really think we have heard the right numbers of those who have died?) a global pandemic could spread easier than ever and an extremely unknown virulent strain of the flu crossing over requires no great stretch of the imagination.
(The only question I had was I did wonder at one point why Kristen would be scavenging and decide to wear a silk dress she found rather than taking it for a costume and look for some jeans to wear.)
I would declare this a camp out all night at the airport book but... just read it and you'll know why I can't go there.
Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Knopf Doubleday for review purposes.