Driving home from a wedding this past weekend, we noted just how green everything looked. The trees were lush with foliage, their own and that of the vines creeping around their trunks and heading for the guardrails. I was struck how quickly the land would take over if we disappeared from the planet. If those vines went unchecked for a year or two, or a decade, how much of the highway would simply disappear?
That’s the kind of world Kirsten Raymonde inhabits in Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven*, a novel that marries literary fiction, speculative fiction, and Shakespeare. It’s absolutely marvelous.
It’s been 20 years since a virulent form of flu killed more than 90% of the Earth’s population in a matter of weeks. At 28, Kirsten vaguely remembers the world as it once was, when you could open a cold box to retrieve food, when an infected scrape wasn’t a death sentence, when you could flick a switch and lights turned on.
Now Kirsten walks the road with the caravan of the Traveling Symphony, a group of actors and musicians moving from place to place along the shore of Lake Michigan performing Shakespeare and music to varying receptions. The motto of the Traveling Symphony is “survival is insufficient”—drawn from a Star Trek: Voyager episode (written by Ronald D. Moore, of BSG and Outlander fame)—which reflects their devotion to keeping art alive even when fidning food and shelter is very difficult. When they encounter a disturbing religious fanatic at the settlement of St. Deborah by the Water, the Symphony is forced to make difficult choices in order to survive.
As literary speculative fiction, Station Eleven is top-notch, in a category with Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go in terms of sheer beautiful writing, and surpassing even McCarthy’s The Road in its vision of what a post-government, post-technology world looks like for survivors. Through Kristen, readers glimpse the traumas of the immediate period of collapse that inform the customs and practices of the new world, while through another character we see what it was like to live through the first months of the plague with a group of survivors who slowly realize that the National Guard and the Red Cross aren’t coming to save anyone.
Tracking the survivors in the post-collapse world is only part of Station Eleven‘s brilliant structure. The book opens on the last day of the old world, when 8-year-old Kirsten is performing in King Lear with Arthur Leander, one of the best actors of his generation. Arthur is the fixed point of the novel; the other major characters are all somehow connected to him, and as we follow Kirsten’s adventures, we’re also learning the tale of Arthur’s life and death in parallel.
The balance among the narratives is simply exquisite. And so is the tone, in its waves of fragility and strength, darkness and hope, loss and recovery. In that, Station Eleven resembles not a tragedy, but a Shakespearean romance. Kirsten is a Miranda on an island without a shore, making the brave new world as she goes.
This is a gorgeous, splendid novel. Highly recommended.
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.