When I first saw the phrase “literary science fiction” on one book website or another, it jarred me a bit, I admit. It didn’t put me off the book, but I did start it with a grain of salt. And that’s when Station Eleven did its thing and just drew me in.
I’m starting off with the cover again, because I’d only seen the US version of it (left) until right after I finished the book and when I saw the UK one (right) I literally aahhhh-ed at it. First of all, it fits the book so well – hence the “aahhhh” – and second, it’s just soooo beautiful and so mysterious. I love the US version, too, mainly because of the super starry sky but also for the simplicity of it.
All right. Enough with the superficial. It’s time to plunge in.
And plunge you will, especially if, like me, you’ve come across sci-fi in the description and then find yourself in the middle of a Shakespeare production. Not only are we on stage but King Lear just died! In that same night a new kind of super-flu sweeps across North America – after having conquered the other continents already – and in a few weeks’ time it’ll have changed what’s left of civilization forever. Except Shakespeare, of course.
Talk about starting as close to the end as possible! And it keeps getting better. 20 years after Arthur Leander dies while playing King Lear, we’ve join the Traveling Symphony, who not only perform Shakespeare but play classical music as well. They hunt, they gather, they salvage and scavenge all in the name or art. Because “Survival is insufficient”. Survival is also a challenge for everyone who somehow escaped swift but gruesome death by the Georgia flu. The remnants of civilization are clusters of people living in small communities – or in rare cases isolated – across the land, but the Traveling Symphony only traverses the Great Lakes region. Until one day they have to venture outside their territory. The reason is an ominous Prophet they encounter in the town of St. Deborah by the Water.
Travelling with the Symphony does not provide repose for its members, nor does it for the reader. The matter of Station Eleven is woven from the intertwining threads of physical survival and emotional sanity, interspersed with questions of love, integrity, and religion.
Some of those threads meet again and again only to split at the end, others twist and coil for a long time before they finally meet in order to make sense of the whole picture, and others still, like Kristin and her ragged comic books, are the thread connecting the world of before with the desolation of now.
Using alternating story lines spanning decades, Emily St. John Mandel reveals layer after layer of a story about humanity and its resilience, about love and its feebleness, about the power of conviction and its dark side, and, of course, about true art and its timelessness. A great example of a post-apocalyptic world causing momentary flashbacks to The Road.