At a time when influenza and flu shots are rampant in the news, Station Eleven seems like a plausible situation when a flu epidemic drastically changes the world. It is set in multiple North American cities including Toronto and starts with the death of Arthur, a famous actor playing King Lear, in the Elgin Theatre. At the same time, the Georgian flu attacks its victims quickly and with deadly consequences, leaving 99% of the population dead.
In a world devoid of modern conveniences such as electricity, cars and air travel, the novel follows the lives of individuals who had been connected to Arthur. Kirsten, a child actress who had witnessed his death, survived and became a member of the Travelling Symphony. This group hiked across the countryside playing music and acting out Shakespeare for those that remained, huddled into primitive communities fending for themselves. Kirsten would scavenge abandoned homes, looking for remnants of Arthur including articles in old magazines. Clark, an old friend, was part of a community that lived in an airport and started his own Museum of Civilization with artifacts such as iPhones and computers. Arthur’s ex-wife Elizabeth and their son Tyler also survived and became part of a community. These characters carried with them the memories of time with Arthur and eventually converged.
The novel makes the reader reflect on the possibilities of life as we know it changing so dramatically in the span of a couple of days. The characters lost many loved ones without a chance to say good bye. They had to learn to live in a world free of the technology, walking for transportation and hunting for food. It is easy for the reader to picture the abandoned homes decaying as the natural world started to fill in around them.
“It’s surprising how quickly the condition of living out of a carry-on suitcase on a bench by a departure gate can begin to seem normal.”
The novel cuts back and forth between past and present. As Arthur finally learns what is most important to him, his life is cut short without a chance to see his young son. After his death, across the world, individuals have to focus on the basics of survival despite loss and dramatic life style changes. This unique story is a timely one to read at the end of a year and makes one reflect on what is really important as we move into 2015. Emily St. John Mandel is a Canadian having grown up in British Columbia which is where Arthur had also spent his childhood.
“Time had been reset by catastrophe.”