“Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.”
The opening chapter of Station Eleven takes place at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto, during a production of King Lear. The lead actor, Arthur Leander, suffers a heart attack and dies on stage. Jeevan, a paramedic in the audience, attempts to resuscitate him. Meanwhile, a child actress looks on as chaos unfolds around her. Thus marks the eve of the end of the world. That same night, a deadly flu sweeps through the city at an alarming rate. Twenty years later, we learn that 99% of the earth’s population has been wiped out.
Mandel’s engaging, disturbing tale revolves around three main protagonists, Arthur, Jeevan and Kirsten, and focuses on events both decades before the pandemic, and twenty years later. The latter period is driven mainly by Kirsten, who travels the Great Lakes region with a band of actors and musicians named the Travelling Symphony. Her only link with the old world is a comic book given to her by Arthur Leander, ‘Station Eleven’.
This novel is a truly unique take on post-apocalyptic reality, imagined so many times before but never with such frank, raw emotion. So successful is Mandel’s exploration of the human psyche that I empathised with these characters completely. Their loss, fear and isolation were tangible, to the extent that I needed to put this book down at points, forced as I was to imagine how I too might feel in their situation. One perspective is of Arthur’s friend Clark, who in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic tries to come to terms with the probability that his boyfriend must now be dead. His attempts to cope include having imagined conversations with him, in which they reflect on what has happened. Clearly Mandel’s ability to make my heart sink is unparalleled.
Interestingly, with the exception of Jeevan, I found that more minor characters held greater interest for me than the main protagonists. The points of view I enjoyed most were those of Clark and of one of Arthur’s ex-wives Miranda, so it was a little disappointing not to hear more from them. Having said that, I enjoyed the happenstance that interwove the fate of the characters and after all, this novel isn’t trying to be an overwrought character study, but instead explores the overtness of the human condition. It highlights art as a defining aspect of civilisation as we know it, a sort of life raft that the Traveling Symphony salvage in an attempt to sustain humanity.
The writing is both lyrical and seamless. Reading Station Eleven is an experience, one that sweeps you up and urgently bids you to consume these characters and their reality. Living between the pages of a book can be as intense as it is calming, and this novel serves as a reminder that this can be a very good thing.