On the night a famous Hollywood actor dies on stage while performing Shakespeare's King Lear and in a moment that none of the world expects, a new strain of flu begins to rapidly spread across the globe, wiping out 99% of the population of the world in just a few weeks. Twenty years later, a band of survivors who call themselves The Traveling Symphony wanders from town to town in the broken down landscape of their post-apocalyptic world, performing Shakespeare for those who can still appreciate art from a distant time. One of their number is a girl named Kirsten who was there the night the actor died. She was eight. And she tries to make something of the life she’s been given, striving to find the world they’d once left behind, just like a character named Dr. Eleven tries to do in a series of graphic novels she’s carried around since before the collapse of civilization.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is a beautifully written novel that follows several well-developed characters back and forth in time. The book features a nonlinear plot at its finest as Mandel weaves the narrative from the time before the collapse to several years after and back again.
The writing of the story reminded me a lot of reading the first two books in Justin Cronin’s The Passage trilogy, with it’s beautifully detailed descriptions and thoughtful character development. The book follows the actor Arthur Leander, his wife-then-ex-wife Miranda, a photographer turned paramedic named Jeevan Chaudhary, Arthur’s oldest friend Clark Thompson, and Kirsten Raymonde. The primary story is centered on Kirsten, and what I liked about her character is her curiosity and fascination with art and creativity. She carries around a series of graphic novels about a space station filled with people that await the day they can return to an inhabitable earth. The space station is called Station Eleven, which is where the story gets its name. There are a lot of interesting parallels between the narrative of Mandel’s story and the story of Dr. Eleven and the inhabitants of Station Eleven. The origin of the Dr. Eleven graphic novels is interesting.
Though this story follows several characters back and forth in time, Mandel carefully weaves all of their stories together because this really is one story she is telling. Some of the most interesting aspects of the story are the prophet and his origin story and the airport where civilization seems to stop. Mandel also fuels reader interest by providing several elements of mystery throughout the story that promise answers later on in the story.
I picked up Station Eleven because so many people had been saying how good it was. They were all right. Out of all the novels I’ve read this year, this one definitely goes down as the best one I’ve read. Emily St. John Mandel has created such a vividly real world that I’d love for her to continue the story in another book.
Review copy provided by Knopf