On a snowy Toronto night, famous actor Arthur Leander has a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. Jeevan Chaudhary, a former paparazzo who had followed Arthur’s career, is in the audience and leaps to the actor’s aid. On the sidelines, child actress Kirsten Raymonde watches Jeevan, now an EMT-in-training, perform CPR on the fallen actor. However, despite Jeevan’s best efforts, Arthur dies.
Walking home from the theater that night, Jeevan learns that a deadly flu that originated in eastern Europe has spread to the US and is killing its victims at an alarming rate. Jeevan makes his way to his disabled brother’s high-rise apartment building, where the two men hole up and watch the terrible developments on the news. According to reports, the Georgia Flu is the deadliest in history; its victims get sick within hours of being exposed to the virus and are dead a day or two later. Estimates put its mortality rate at 99%. Over the next few days and months, Jeevan watches as hospitals overflow, people flee the city and eventually abandon their cars on gridlocked highways, lootings and fires scar the city, the news stations cease broadcasting, and the power goes out for what turns out to be the last time.
Twenty years after the collapse, Kirsten is an actress with the Traveling Symphony, a small troupe of actors and musicians who travel between settlements in a drastically altered country. With a motto borrowed from Star Trek — “Because survival is insufficient” — the company performs Shakespeare and music for the small groups of survivors they encounter. The world Kristen belongs to now is much more dangerous than the one that came before — but the two knife tattoos on her wrist prove she is well equipped to protect herself.
When the Traveling Symphony stops in St. Deborah by the Water, they meet a violent prophet whose leadership has dark ramifications for the group. After a dangerous incident splits up the Symphony, they decide to head toward the Severn City Airport, where rumor has it that a man has set up a Museum of Civilization, and where they hope to be reunited.
Station Eleven spans decades, moving back and forth in time between Arthur’s life with his first wife Miranda, Jeevan’s experience riding out the collapse in his brother’s apartment before finally setting out into the snow two months later, Kirsten’s journey with the Traveling Symphony, and finally the life of a man who was stranded in the Severn City Airport when the Georgia Flu broke out.
I know it’s already been said a thousand times, but I am going to say it again. This book is amazing. I have never stopped to think about what would actually happen if a super virus killed 99% of the Earth’s human population, but Emily St. John Mandel certainly has. And she describes the collapse of civilization in chilling, riveting detail. The instinct to flee the cities, even though there is nowhere safe left to go. The shock people feel when the lights go out, but the certainty that they will come back on, that the National Guard or the Red Cross will be arriving with supplies any day. The way all of the survivors come at least partially unhinged for the first few years, after witnessing everyone they loved die. The breakdown into small, scattered settlements and the mistrust of outsiders. The gruesome reality of treating injuries without anesthesia.
Learning what has become of civilization, along with the gripping stories of Arthur, Miranda, Jeevan, Kirsten, and the man at the airport (whom I won’t name because it could be a spoiler), makes it impossible to put this book down. The stories of each of these characters fit together intricately, like a puzzle that has to be solved, and it’s fascinating to watch as the pieces fall into place.
Station Eleven is absolutely one of the best books I’ve read this year. It has an incredible premise, just enough action and adventure, and beautiful observations about humans and the way we treat each other. Although the novel begins with a horrific darkness, it ends on a hopeful note that made this cold-hearted reader well up with tears.
Disclosure: If you make a purchase through the link above, I will make a tiny commission.