By Emily St. John Mandel
A famous actor has a heart attack on stage as he performs King Lear; a paramedic-in-training jumps out of the audience to perform CPR; and a 7-year-old actress watches her mentor pass away. Outside the theatre, snow is falling, and a deadly flu is quickly spreading across the globe. Unbeknownst to those in the thrall of the King Lear tragedy, the world as we know it is coming to an end.
So begins Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Fast forward 20 years and that young actress is now performing with the Travelling Symphony. Kirsten has little memory of the old world before the Georgia Flu. With her parents and brother gone, she now has a new family – all survivors.
Although there are many settlements, there are no longer towns per se, or even borders. The Symphony is made up of actors and musicians who move from place to place performing nightly renditions of Shakespeare and Bach, amongst other things. In a world that has turned dark, the Travelling Symphony brings light.
There are many hazards on the road, but none so frightening as in St. Deborah-By-The-Sea. This settlement is ruled by a Prophet; he takes many wives, often young girls, and holds sway over the townsfolk. The Symphony knows when they arrive that they are in danger, and escape is much more difficult than they imagine.
Meanwhile, Station Eleven also follows the life of our paramedic. Jeevan must make his way out of Toronto on terrifying roads strewn with the dead. He must avoid marauding bandits and the dangers of a lawless world, to find… what? There must be good people out there, he reasons.
As for our actor, Arthur’s former life is revisited – a life of fame, fortune and many regrets. He leaves behind three ex-wives – one of whom has written the Station Eleven comic book from which the novel gets its name. He also leaves one son, Tyler, to a new and dangerous existence.
Mandel writes of a dystopian world that is well within the realm of possibility. At times the characters’ fear is palpable as they navigate the unknown. But amongst all the heartbreak, beauty persists. There is a rumour of a Museum of Civilization, located in an airport in Michigan. The Symphony brings its brand of beauty to the world on a nightly basis. And as the new world solidifies, people move beyond survival and towards lives they enjoy.