In the present day, an actor is performing as King Lear on stage. He falters, flubs his lines, and stumbles. A man in the audience, a paramedic, runs to his aid, but the actor has had a heart attack and cannot be saved. He is Arthur Leander, a famous actor of stage and screen, the news of his death would be everywhere, except within a few hours the Georgia Flu hits, and the scale of death obliterates his.
We follow the paramedic, Jeevan Chaudhary, for a while, as he is notified of the epidemic and uses this head’s up to stock his brother’s flat with as much food and water as he can. There’s also Miranda, Arthur’s ex-wife, who has spent much of her adult life creating a graphic novel called Station Eleven. Their present and reactions to the epidemic are woven into the story as we jump 15 and 20 years later, following Kirsten Raymonde, one of the child actors in the King Lear production. She was on stage when Arthur died and he had gifted her Miranda’s novels. Now an adult, she is part of the Travelling Symphony, a group who goes from town to town bringing performances of Shakespeare and orchestral music. Because survival is insufficient, and art matters, maybe now more than ever.
This new world isn’t as harsh as it was in the immediate aftermath, but it still has its dangers. And the Travelling Symphony encounter one while passing through a town in their usual territory. Gone is the old mayor and rule of law, and in their place is the Prophet. A man who takes many wives and rules via Bible verse. Unknown to her, Kirsten’s life and the Prophet’s are connected…
I was reading a book before this that just wasn’t very good, and it was bringing me down, and I saw a post about the book group discussions for Cannonball. It inspired me to go back to Station Eleven as a palate cleanser. I’ve read it at least three times before. I think on this read I realised its one of my favourite books ever. End of the world/dystopias really hit all my buttons and this one is exceptional. The writing is sublime. I also enjoy stories within stories and books where characters are connected, however small those connections may be. The fact that it includes references to Star Trek is just icing on the cake.
I particularly enjoy seeing how people react and cope differently to similar events. Kirsten and the Prophet are around the same age when the flu hits, they both have access to Miranda’s comics, and they survive to adulthood in an apocalypse, and yet they choose decidedly different paths. And we see quite clearly that Kirsten is very capable of killing, could have gone that route and joined a more ruthless band of people, yet she chooses art. She chooses Shakespeare and music. Not a false prophet or cult. Because life has to be about so much more than just surviving. It’s such an optimistic message, and I love hope in the darkness. I like the idea that humans can seek the better parts of our natures, that beauty can survive at the end of the world.
It’s one that I wish was longer, and if the author ever wanted to write a follow up, even just observing the characters growing crops and raising babies, I’d read it. I want to know more.