This is a book that defies easy description. A post-apocalyptic story that adheres to few of the tropes of the genre; a narrative that wends its way through disparate lives and times, linked only by a single, strange conceit; a book concerned less with the now than with the genealogies of experience that led to it.
The apocalypse is only one part of the grand story, a frame that separates the epochs into before and after. The story starts at the during, opening with the dramatic on-stage death of a noted Shakespearean actor from a heart attack, just as the first victims of the savage, decimating Georgia Flu start to sicken and die. His death would have been lost in the drama of the apocalypse, but it is his story that Mandel focuses on for much of the book, spinning an evocative tale of his storied life.
Through that overarching frame, Mandel writes of other lives, touched, in ways good, ill and strange, by the tides of Leander’s time on the mortal plane. And those other lives – like Miranda Carroll, Leander’s first wife, whose eponymously-titled comic book series becomes another totem that draws the dissipated threads together in complex, unexpected ways.
This book is a veritable tapestry of interconnected lives; surviving, enduring, thriving, in a way that post-apocalyptia makes more true; somehow, the collapse of civilisation sets our best and worst traits in starker contrast. The putative protagonist, Kirsten Raymonde, was a child performing in Leander’s last production when the Georgia Flu hit; she survives the plague and lives life as a member of an itinerant troupe, keeping Shakespeare alive in a transformed world. Jeevan Chaudhary, former paparazzo turned paramedic, who stalked Leander in his old life and who gives Leander futile CPR as he expires on stage. Clark Thompson, Arthur’s best friend, who becomes the keeper of a museum of artifacts of civilisation to educate a generation who has never known electricity.
All these stories are barely related to one another except in surprising and tenuous threads of fate, yet they are all compelling in their own way, so much so that I found the main plot – in which Kirsten’s travelling troupe has to deal with an upstart cult – perhaps the least compelling part of the book. And really, in what post apocalyptic tome would that particular plot thread not take centre stage? But in Station Eleven, it is just one of many disparate stories.
As such, there is something refreshing about Station Eleven‘s way of casting its narrative net far and wide, telling many stories amidst many themes – of lives lived in celebrity, female empowerment, of the strange, unfamiliar theme of a younger, post-technological generation carrying the torch of civilisation from an older, technological one.
And, importantly, Station Eleven doesn’t fetishize the apocalypse; it doesn’t commoditize that sense of bleak despair and nihilism that comes with it. Instead, it ends with a tinge of hope – that, contrary to what many post-apocalyptic novels would paint, there is some home for humanity to claw its way out of the dark valley without staining its soul along the way.
I give this book: 4 out of 5 knife tattoos