“Lovely” and “beautifully drawn” are the kind descriptions I find myself a little too apt to use when describing books. They sound nice, but are so broad and used so often that they render themselves meaningless. An exception, however, has to be made in the case of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Of all of the books in my recent memory, it’s one of the most lovely and beautifully drawn—a surprising thing given the fact that it’s a novel about the collapse of civilization as we know it.
The dystopian elements of Station Eleven are far different from the type of dystopian novels that are so trendy right now, especially in the YA genre. In it, the end of civilization comes about not as the result of a Brave New World regime in the distant future, but rather because of a deadly flu epidemic. As a plot convention, the epidemic feels both frightening and frighteningly immediate—it’s recognizable as something you could imagine happening tomorrow. The post-epidemic world is made up of loosely organized rural communities. Lacking electricity, fuel, and any form of transport more advanced than a horse-drawn cart, the small population that did not succumb to the flu now lives in small, localized settlements, reclaiming deserted box stores and fast food restaurants as housing, and farming and hunting for their food. The action of the plot is driven by the nomadic Traveling Symphony, a band of actors and musicians who travel from town to town performing Shakespearean plays. The central character within the Symphony is Kirsten Raymonde. Fifteen years prior, she was performing as a child actress in a Canadian production of King Lear on the day before the flu epidemic struck. On that last night, Kirsten shared the stage with Arthur Leander, the famous actor playing the title role, and with Jeevan Chandury, a paramedic in training who springs into action when Arthur suffers a heart attack mid-performance. As Station Eleven unfolds, we come to see how Kirstin, Arthur, and Jeevan share a connected fate to the people the Traveling Symphony encounters in the course of their wanderings.
While Kirsten ostensibly represents the heart of the novel, I actually found her to be one of the least interesting characters. She’s too young to remember much from the pre-epidemic era, and therefore serves mostly as a touchstone for certain connecting elements in the older characters’ earlier lives. I won’t say more so as not to give anything away, but it’s these recurring connections that are the most intriguing parts of the novel. We see them emerge through flashbacks that show the lives of Jeevan, Arthur, and Arthur’s ex-wives and friends, both before and during the epidemic. These flashbacks contrast with the novel’s post-apocalyptic present in a way that’s really poignant and that—at the risk of sounding a bit cheesy—left me looking with newfound appreciation at even the most banal daily conveniences that we take for granted. Highly, highly recommended.