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 Eleventells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it.
From the Hardcover edition.
Emily St. John Mandel’s Post-apocalyptic novel, Station Eleven is one of the most thought-provoking and intriguing of its kind that I have read. A story which makes you consider what is most important in your life, and how once everything has been stripped away, and materials things no longer matter it is the loving relationships with others and the beauty found in human creativity that can make even the most dire situations seem beautiful.
Beautifully written from a number of different perspectives before and after the Georgian flu wipes out around 99% of the population, the story flows seamlessly between narratives, each with their own outlook on life but each connected to one person, Author Leander, a famous actor, who in some way has impacted upon each person’s life. Arthur Leander at times portrays the usual characteristics recognisable with some of today’s famous A-listers, someone who is flawed yet is completely devoted to his art and has worked hard in his quest for fame and fortune, succeeding, yet not so successful in terms of his relationships. Divorced three times, one of his ex-wives is Miranda, a graphic novelist whose work is called Station Eleven. Miranda gives two copies of the first issues to Arthur which he then gives to a young actress called Kristen, 20 years later after the collapse, Kristen is part of the Travelling Symphony.
The Travelling Symphony itself is fascinating. They are an assortment of characters and entertainers, travelling the desolate American landscape, performing Shakespeare and music to the small settlements of survivors, trying to bring some semblance of normality and beauty to an otherwise barren, dangerous and haunting landscape.
”Civilization in Year Twenty was an archipelago of small towns. These towns had fought off ferals, buried their neighbors, lived and died and suffered together in the blood-drenched years just after the collapse, survived against unspeakable odds and then only by holding together into the calm…”
The Symphony’s motto is one taken from Star Trek – “Because survival is insufficient” and I think this quote sums up this novels message, although the characters are surviving, even before the pandemic, people working day in day out trying to make ends meet or pursue fortune, like “high functioning sleepwalkers”, it is the things we sometimes take for granted that turn surviving into actually living.
Unlike most post-apocalyptic literature I read, Station Eleven isn’t an action filled, zombie/mutant fest and instead feels more of a story about the importance of living life in a way which allows you to appreciate loved ones, appreciating art in all forms and not being trapped in a monotonous and disappointing daily routine as put by Emily St. John Mandel
“…people who've ended up in one life instead of another and they are just so disappointed. Do you know what I mean? They've done what's expected of them. They want to do something different but it's impossible now, there's a mortgage, kids, whatever, they're trapped...”
Of course in a society no longer controlled by laws it is no surprise that the Traveling Symphony encounter some nutcase proclaiming to be a prophet. The false prophet resides in a settlement called St Deborah by the Water, already visited by the symphony some years past, there is now an unsettling feel to the place and even more unsettling are the gravestones left for people who still live, including their friends who had settled there to raise their child. Their friends missing, the symphony must trace them, at the same time the prophet has taken a liking to Kristen and wishes for her to become one of his many wives resulting in a chase and eventual standoff. This part of the story added much appreciated pace whereas the rest of the story at times is slow yet the beautiful writing and linked stories of the enthralling characters held my attention throughout.
Station Eleven is an enthralling novel which I really loved, a story that transitioned between pre and post-apocalypse gracefully, and was elegant and heart-breaking. Highly recommended.