Station Eleven begins with an actor, 51-year-old Arthur Leander, having a heart attack onstage during a performance of King Lear. While this is happening, unknown to those in the theatre, a pandemic is occurring.
An outbreak of flu in Georgia has spread to Canada via an aeroplane passenger. Hua, a doctor at Toronto General Hospital, rings his friend Jeevan Chaudhary as Jeevan walks home from the theatre:
“We’ve admitted over two hundred flu patients since this morning,” Hua said. “A hundred and sixty in the past three hours. Fifteen of them have died. The ER’s full of new cases. We’ve got beds parked in hallways…
“It’s the fastest incubation period I’ve ever seen. I just saw a patient, she works as an orderly here at the hospital, on duty when the first patients started coming in this morning. She started feeling sick a few hours into her shift, went home early, her boyfriend drove her back in two hours ago and now she’s on a ventilator. You get exposed to this, you’re sick within hours.”
We follow Jeevan as he prepares to survive for as long as he can. That’s one small thread in a much more complex story though.
In the time before the pandemic, we learn about Arthur Leander. A hugely famous actor with three ex-wives and a son, his personal story is fascinating. It’s also largely the story of his first wife, Miranda, who creates a graphic novel called Station Eleven which is passed onto Kirsten, one of the child actors in the performance of King Lear in which Leander dies.
Kirsten is the focus of the other main thread of the novel which is set in Year Twenty after the pandemic and the world as we would recognise it. She is part of a group called the Travelling Symphony who walk from settlement to settlement performing music and plays.
The Symphony performed music – classical, jazz, orchestral arrangements of pre-collapse pop songs – and Shakespeare. They’d performed more modern plays sometimes in the first few years, but what was startling, what no one would have anticipated was that audiences seem to prefer Shakespeare to their other theatrical offerings.
“People want what was best about the world,” Dieter said.
When we first encounter The Travelling Symphony, it’s arriving at a place called St. Deborah by the Water. It’s a place on their regular circuit where two years previously they’d left two of their number – Charlie and the sixth guitar – so Charlie could give birth somewhere that wasn’t on the road. But the atmosphere in the town is off, Charlie and the sixth guitar are nowhere to be found, and then there’s The Prophet.
Station Eleven is a story about civilisation and relationships.
…this collection of petty jealousies, neuroses, undiagnosed PTSD cases, and simmering resentments lived together, travelled together, rehearsed together, performed together 365 days of the year, permanent company, permanent tour. But what made it bearable were the friendships, of course, the camaraderie and the music and the Shakespeare, the moments of transcendent beauty and joy when it didn’t matter who’d used the last of the rosin on their bow or who anyone had slept with…
The quotation refers to the Symphony but it’s equally valid for a family or a long-term group of friends and through the events in the novel – both pre and post-pandemic – Mandel shows us the power that relationships can have, both positive and negative.
The novel’s structured so it moves between the pre and post-pandemic stories but neither of these is told in a linear fashion. Mandel places events in order to withhold key pieces of information, drip-feeding us with perfect timing. Her sentences are precise and well balanced, creating characters through action and dialogue.
I thoroughly enjoyed Station Eleven. It left me with a number of questions about the nature of humanity but more than anything it left me with hope. Hope that if the apocalypse were to happen aspects of our culture would survive; hope that humans can support and inspire each other; hope that ultimately we are a civilised race.
The book has also been reviewed by fellow Bailey’s Prize shadow juror Eric. Click on his name to be taken to his review.
Thanks to Picador for the review copy.