In current-day Toronto, Arthur Leander suffers a heart attack onstage during a performance of King Lear. Jeevan Chaudhary is in the audience. He’s a former paparazzo, and now an EMT-in-training and he rushes to save Leander. But there’s nothing to be done. Arthur is dead and as the medics wheel him out, Jeevan notices a young actress, Kirsten Raymonde, alone on the stage, watching in fear.
That night, a flu pandemic grips the world and takes out 99.9% of its population in a matter of days. Survivors are left in a world without power. No communication, no travel, no internet. Some wander alone, some form communities to protect themselves in dangerous lands.
Kirsten survives. Twenty years later, she is a member of the Traveling Symphony, a group of actors and musicians. When they arrive at St. Deborah by the Water, a community near Lake Michigan, they hope to find their friends, Charlotte and Jeremy. But something is wrong. A woman tells them, “Your friend rejected the prophet’s advances. They had to leave.”
What follows is a series of stories that trace back to Arthur, his life as an actor and his death, the people who knew him and two curious issues of a graphic novel called Station Eleven. These are the elaborate drawings and dialogue created by Arthur’s first wife, Miranda and they describe a damaged space station that’s built like a planet and is hiding deep in space. The planet’s surface is mostly water. Most of its people live trapped in the undersea world, led by Dr. Eleven and all they want to do is go home.
Station Eleven is difficult to describe because it’s the kind of book you just have to read to understand. Mandel describes a post-apocalyptic world in which a dangerous prophet claims that they are the chosen ones and that “everything happens for a reason.” But the story is more than that. It’s a look at people who are forced to change their lives in the most drastic of ways, to build something out of nothing. Some of Mandel’s characters, like Jeevan, have already begun to change. Arthur’s best friend, Clark Thompson, is just beginning to realize how meaningless his job as an expert in changing executives is when the pandemic hits. Kirsten and other younger survivors remember little of their previous lives and do what they need to do. And twenty years later, new parents need to decide what to teach their children. Do they tell them about the world that was? What’s the point?
The book jumps around a lot, but Mandel is good at explaining the connections and before long, the jumps become seamless. And of course, they all lead to the ultimate confrontation between the good and the bad, with a satisfying finish. I like all the pieces in this story. They all work, including the parallel story of the lost space station. I like the hopeful suggestion that most people are good and noble and my favorite part of the book is the description of “The Museum of Civilization.” And I especially like how Mandel introduces Arthur at the end of his life, giving the impression of a man who has failed to achieve happiness or to understand the true meaning of life and love, until the end. Is finding peace and understand okay, even if it’s in the last hour of your life?
A great read – check it out!
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