Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel
Given that the bulk of future-dystopia novels involve zombies, I generally avoid the genre unless I read a good recommendation. I’m really glad that I grabbed this one.
This book has some typical tropes. As an example there is a violent religious cult which steals women for forced marriage to members and a “prophet”. In most ways, however, this book takes on a unique storyline, delving as much into the past as a horrible future.
The main character in the novel dies in the first chapter. Arthur Leander is touring as the lead actor in a production of Shakespeare’s King Lear. During a performance in Toronto Leander collapses on stage. Jeevan Chauhdry, an EMT in the audience, leaps on stage to try to revive him. Despite his CPR attempts and the arrival of an ambulance crew Leander dies. The rest of the book will follow the lives of Jeevan and a young actress named Kirsten, acting on stage when Leander dies, through a devastating plague and its aftermath.
News of the plague reaches Jeevan on the way home from the theater via a telephone call by a friend who works in a hospital. A new form of flu has reached the hospital. Hospital employees are falling sick within hours of first exposure and those hit by the virus frequently die within 48 hours. Jeevan buys shopping baskets of water and supplies and locks himself and his brother away from the world in his brother’s apartment.
As the story develops we learn that Jeevan had tried his hand at being a paparazzo and entertainment reporter in Los Angeles. Arthur Leander touched his life several times during that period. We learn about Leander’s beginnings as an actor and his three wives, one of whom is a reclusive artist who prefers to spend her hours in a studio developing a graphic novel called Station Eleven.
We also learn of Kirstin’s future. Having survived the plague she now travels with the Traveling Symphony, a troupe of musicians and actors traveling from settlement to settlement to perform music and Shakespearean plays. In her part of the story it is now fifteen years later. The performers travel through dangerous and barren territory to stage their performances. Most of them have also developed skills with various weapons, all necessary for hunting and protection.
We also learn about the lives of Leander’s wives, as well as Leander’s attorney who ends up living through the plague stranded in an airport, coincidentally with Leander’s son and the artist wife.
I don’t think one could describe the book as hopeful, but it’s certainly more life affirming than most novels in this sub-genre. The book was a nominee for the National Book Award and has appeared on several “best” lists. It’s a standout in narrative development and characterization, examining several lives that intertwined with one larger-than-life performer.