Emily St. John Mandel
In Station Eleven, famed actor Arthur Leader suffers a fatal heart attack while performing the lead role in King Lear as eight-year-old Kirsten Raymonde and two other young girls with non-speaking parts watch with horror. The same night, a virulent flu with a near 99% mortality rate begins its insidious spread.
Twenty years after the “Collapse” caused by the flu and its aftermath, Kirsten survives as a member of the Traveling Symphony, a group of twenty or so musicians and actors who travel in a general loop around Lake Huron stopping at settlements to provide entertainment in exchange for provisions.
As Mandel unspools the narrative of the Symphony, she intersperses flashbacks that trace Arthur’s life before the “Collapse.” The two accounts weave together in surprising and satisfying ways. Mandel’s prose is effortless and lovely—Station Eleven is a book in which I’ve highlighted numerous passages.
I most enjoyed the storyline dealing with the Symphony. Kirsten has a motto from Star Trek: Voyager tattooed on her arm: “survival is insufficient.” Set twenty years after the Collapse, the characters aren’t (always) struggling with immediate survival and can consider the role of art in the post-flu world.
Memory, too, is debated. Some people (and settlements) are interested in maintaining a record of pre-Collapse civilization, while others have a taboo against speaking of years before the illness.
Against the inventive setting of the post-Collapse milieu, Arthur’s story wasn’t quite as interesting to me. He seemed like a stereotypical wealthy, egotistical adulterer, although his friends and wives livened his storyline.
Station Eleven should be on the reading list of anyone who enjoys dystopian novels, but I would also recommend it to readers who enjoy strong female characters, speculative fiction, or literary fiction.