“Survival is Insufficient”
What would the world be like if 99% of the population was wiped out, in a matter of days? Station Eleven explores a world where a highly contagious and fatal strain of flu has done just that. It is cleverly written, jumping between characters and times without ever becoming overly complicated or clumsy. The author weaves the strands of different characters lives together as they struggle to survive in a suddenly post-apocalyptic world. The main time frames that we see throughout are the present day, pre-collapse, and Year Nineteen, nineteen years afterwards.
The story opens with the death of Arthur Leander, thrice divorced ageing movie star, as he attempts a theatrical comeback performing King Lear onstage in Toronto. This is the night that the flu reaches Canada and nothing will ever be the same. But although he dies at the opening of the book, Arthur’s story links several of the characters together. The theme of Shakespeare is also continued into the future, as in Year Nineteen we are introduced to the Travelling Symphony – a group of travelling musicians and actors who perform Shakespeare plays and musical recitals in the isolated settlements they come across. Kirsten, probably my favourite character, is an actress travelling with the Symphony. She remembers how, as a child in a production of King Lear, she watched Arthur Leander collapse onstage and retains a memory of him as a kindly person who befriended her when she was lonely. She still carries around with her two copies of a comic that he gave to her, the Station Eleven of the title, and scavenges what information she can about the man and his life from found magazines in broken-into houses. Kirsten has had to be tough to survive, a Shakespearean actor who carries knives at her belt, and the Travelling Symphony continue to roam and perform even though it is dangerous and they must defend themselves, because they believe in the importance of what they do and what they can bring to people. Kirsten can’t remember much of her life before the flu, forgetting what it looks like to see a plane in the sky or to open a working fridge and feel the cool air. She also has a whole year after the flu which she can’t, or won’t remember.
We also meet Jeevan, the paparazzo turned paramedic-in-training who leaps up to perform CPR on Arthur’s final stage and Miranda, Arthur’s artistic first wife, now a shipping executive. As the connections between the characters are slowly revealed and we also see more of Arthur’s life before the fall, they are all seemly headed for the same destination, giving the reader some hope of resolution. But who is the disturbing self-titled Prophet? Will they make it to the Museum of Civilisation, and who is the elderly curator who waits there?
Station Eleven is more than just another dystopian novel; it explores the importance of art, literature, memory and friendship, and asks, what is it to really survive?