Station Eleven opens with a performance of King Lear, cut short by the sudden death by heart attack of its lead actor, Arthur Leander. Within a week most of the people present will also be dead, as well most of the world, all victims of the Georgian flu.
What follows is a stunning and haunting look at how humanity might adapt to a devastating apocalypse. It's a bleak thought but Emily St. John Mandel has written a novel that finds hope where things may have seemed hopeless and beauty amongst destruction. The narrative switches between twenty years after the flu and the years leading up to it. Despite Arthur Leander's early death he turns out to be a pivotal character as we follow the lives (amongst others) of his ex-wives, best friend, would be saviour and perhaps most notably Kirsten, the little girl who witnessed his death then years later became a member of The Travelling Symphony, a group of actors and musicians who like the travelling minstrels of the past move from settlement to settlement performing to audiences often desperate for something else; as their mantra states, "Survival is insufficient" and for people who have lost everything it is the works of Shakespeare which provides both a link to the past and a belief in the future.
Indeed the arts features heavily throughout the book, not just Shakespeare but music, literature, the graphic comic books drawn by Miranda, one of Arthur's ex-wives and inspiration for the title, Station Eleven, even the Travelling Symphony's mantra comes from television - it was taken from Star Trek. We are reminded that whilst people are able to adapt and survive, it's through the arts that humans connect and find themselves. That's not to suggest that Mandel's imagined future is a bed of roses, it's far from that. Survival is a struggle, it's dangerous and difficult, both through the loss of technology that we take for granted and because as is always the way there are always some people who want more, and some people who believe - or choose to believe - they have a divine right to take what they desire.
Post-apocalyptic novels can be overblown affairs akin to a Hollywood blockbuster. Station Eleven is not that, it's a thoughtful, quiet look at how ordinary people might adapt, survive and live after everything they hold dear is taken from them. Despite the sombre subject matter it's a book filled with hope and one that will stay with me for a long time. Definitely one of the best books I've read this year.
My thanks to the author and publishers for my copy, received through NetGalley in return for my honest review.
Station Eleven will be published in the UK on 10th September 2014 by Picador