On a stage in Toronto, Arthur Leander is playing King Lear. At 51, it’s finally the right time for him to play this demanding role. However, it will be his last. In the first scene of this novel, he dies on stage from a heart attack. That night, it’s clear that a pandemic is spreading across the world faster than any disease in the past. Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) tells the tale of the post-collapse world that is soon born.
The story jumps ahead twenty years as a young woman, Kirsten Raymonde, who was a mere child onstage at the time of Leander’s death, is wandering in North America – or what is left of it – as part of the Traveling Symphony, a group of actors and musicians who play music and perform Shakespeare’s plays for the survivors.
While the premise of the novel comes from Stephen King (in his The Stand, a virus nicknamed Captain Trips wipes out most of the world’s population; in Station Eleven, it’s the Georgia Flu, named after the country, not the state, that kills 99% of people), the story is quite different. This is not a horror story, and there are no zombies, just normal people adapting to a new way of life.
Ms. Mandel deftly weaves a tale that shifts back and forth between pre- and post-collapse America and Canada, looking at the past of Arthur Leander, the people he knew, and his connection with Kirsten Raymonde. The plotting is interesting, and there’s no attempt to look too closely at the new world; it’s more about linking the past and the present, in an intriguing web of connections. However, the characterization is a bit thin; there’s not enough time to get to know any of the characters, when they appear, to understand why they act the way they do.
This is an entertaining read, and Ms. Mandel presents the new world in an interesting light. However, a lot of her premises about the way people react to this collapse seem wrong. She has a world – well, America – where people group in small settlements, a few dozen, a couple hundred, rather than having them live together in larger towns. This might make the novel easier to plot, but I had the feeling, when reading the book, that it was more a way of avoiding having too many characters, or having to focus much on the consequences of the new way of life.
Her characters do reflect on what they’ve lost; those who remember the pre-collapse world, at least. But the situations that the Traveling Symphony encounter are a bit simplistic, and seem more like vehicles to get Kirsten Raymonde to the end of the story, rather than actual incidents that may occur in a lawless world.
I read this book quite quickly, and I enjoyed it. I feel that Ms. Mandel could have gone a lot further with her depiction of a world after the fall, but that was clearly not her goal. She does tell a good story, but don’t expect a real post-apocalyptic novel here. (It’s interesting that this type of novel has almost become a genre on its own.) Pick this book up for a good story, and a quick read.