Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (2014) – I fear this review will make this book seem much more convoluted than it really is, but I’m going to try and give it the credit it’s due. The premise is a simple one: there’s been a worldwide pandemic where most of humanity is dead and the few survivors in the twenty years that follow fight brigands, cultists, and a world slowly devolving into barbarism. Technology is gone, borders no longer exist, medicine is a memory. But people of hope still exist.
In this bleak world, the Symphony travels from one small village to another, playing music and presenting Shakespeare plays. They are a group of actors and musicians from all walks of life who banded together to try and bring some light into the world. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? I don’t do the world building justice.
Ms. Mandel takes us on this incredible journey through the eyes of Kirsten, a child actress in Toronto, who grows up amongst the death and destruction, and a cast of fellow actors and travelers whose lives interconnect in amazing and revealing ways. For example, the night she appears as a child in Lear, the famous actor playing the king has a heart attack and dies. We follow his life through his climb to fame, his many wives, and his demise shortly before the pandemic. Coincidentally, the actor’s first wife published a comic book called “Station Eleven” about a space station yanked through a wormhole, and Kirsten has one of the few copies.
This comic book is her most treasured possession, and it influences her life and touches almost everyone in the story. More impressed with the comic than Kirsten is Tyler, the son of Lear’s second wife who grows up to be the leader of a cult convinced that the people who survived the plague were chosen by god. This gives him the holy right to take over small towns and impregnate twelve-year-old girls as his wives.
We learn all about the famous actor’s life, his friends’ lives, and a great deal about the artistic first wife. We live their lives and watch their deaths. Kirsten, in the twenty years since the entire world changed, has learned how to kill to survive and would do anything to protect her friends – even run from Tyler in the middle of the night.
Everyone seems to be headed to Servern City and the Museum of Civilization housed at the airport. The group stranded there by the plague decided to stay and build a society on the premises. Coincidentally (there’s that word again), the curator is the famous actor’s best friend. Servern City is the goal of Tyler and his band of followers and Kirsten and the Symphony. There, the somewhat abbreviated confrontation takes place and most of the story comes together and goes on beyond the end of the book.
There are many, many chapters in this book, some of them merely paragraphs, and we follow different people through different periods of their lives. I know it sounds like it could make your head spin, but it never does. Ms. Mandel does an incredible job of weaving all these bits of reality together in an interesting and compelling way. At no time was I lost or confused by what was happening. I was Kirsten and Jenner and the famous actor and his wife. I watched my wheelchair-bound brother die as the city lights went out for the last time. I had daggers tattooed on my wrist to show how many people I had killed in self-defense. I performed King Lear. I drew a science fiction comic book.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book (surprise!), and may have to reread it occasionally. Thank you, Ms. Mandel, for a story both simple and complex.