Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
A famous actor, his 8-year-old co-star, and an in-training paramedic walk onto a Toronto stage (actually, the latter rushes on with great force) … have you heard this one before? Quite possibly, yes, as Canadian-born-and-raised Emily St. John Mandel’s fourth novel seems to be ubiquitously, unanimously popping up on countless end-of-the-year, ‘best-of’-lists! If you’re not yet one of the converted, Station Eleven is one of the more reliably hyped choices, so open up those pages or plug the audible into your ears (mere minor complaints about prodigious narrator Kirsten Potter here, except you might have the occasional eyeball roll because that she can’t pronounce certain words like Hyderabad). But let’s get this story started already!
So the actor, the child, the paramedic are up on stage. The seemingly aggressive paramedic is actually not a rabid fan; he’s trying to save the actor’s life. Arthur Leander, at just 51, dies on stage while playing King Lear. Kirsten Raymonde, who plays one of the younger versions of Lear’s daughters, watches all in shock, as Jeevan Chaudhary pumps unsuccessfully at Arthur’s chest. One will be carried out, one will leave in the care of her caregiver, the last will walk into the snowy night alone and answer a shocking phone call from his closest friend – a doctor – about an unstoppable, virulent pandemic. Life as the world knows it is coming to an end. Although they will never again inhabit a shared space, their three lives will remain inextricably linked.
Twenty years later, the majority of the world’s population has been wiped out by the Georgia Flu: “‘There were no more statisticians by then … but shall we say ninety-nine point ninety-nine percent?'” the self-made, so-called Prophet intones to his band of followers. The creature comforts of civilization are gone: electricity, running water, instant communication devices, the world wide web. A first generation is already coming of age completely off screens. Small groups of survivors have banded together, building self-governing, self-sustaining communities.
In this less-than-brave new world, Kirsten, now a young adult, is a part of a motley group who call themselves the Traveling Symphony. As their name suggests, they perform music, along with a repertoire of Shakespeare plays wherever they stop. Now two of their own have gone missing, and the rumors are that they journeyed to the mythical Museum of Civilization. The others attempt to follow …
Arthur is two decades dead, but his only son is not. Shortly before Arthur’s sudden death, he unintentionally made his son and Kirsten guardians of the titular Station Eleven, a graphic title his first wife took years to create and later self-published. The fictional world she imagined sustains and inspires both children in extraordinarily different ways.
Author Mandel moves fluidly between the world before and after the deadly plague, filling in Arthur’s famed life as Hollywood glitterati, his troubled relationships, his best friend. His wannabe savior Jeevan and he have crossed paths before when Jeevan was a celebrity photographer, and then an entertainment journalist to whom Arthur once gave an exclusive. Kirsten remains posthumously devoted to Arthur all her young life, keeping a folder of clippings about him she happens upon as if they hold the memories she can’t conjure.
In a dystopic existence when social structures and basic relationships are repeatedly being redefined, the survivors create microcosms that work and others that clearly don’t. Mandel delicately, intricately explores what is let go, what is reclaimed, what is held sacred when once-privileged humans are suddenly so deprived … from families to information, from someone else’s laws to personal morals, from dreams to an all-too-fathomable reality. All along, she seems to be asking – if you knew the end was nigh, what choices might you make …?