The end of the world might seem like an odd time to care about music and art; why worry about Shakespeare when civilization has collapsed? But in Canadian writer Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, it seems perfectly plausible that a Traveling Symphony would cross the wasteland that exists 20 years after most of the world’s population has died from a flu epidemic. They perform in parking lots, traveling from settlement to settlement and raiding long-abandoned houses for costumes. The musicians care for each other like family and work to hone their craft, because as Mandel writes early in this suspenseful and haunting novel: “What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still so much beauty.”
The narrative moves back and forth in time—before the collapse and after, introducing and reintroducing characters at different moments in their lives. This nonlinear structure contributes to the novel’s quick (and addictive) pace. A Hollywood actor dies during a production of King Lear, then the man who tried to revive him attempts to save himself from the quickly spreading flu. Kirsten, a child actor in Lear, survives the sickness and grows up to join the Traveling Symphony. A dangerous prophet gains power, and a British expat builds a museum of artifacts from the world before the collapse. Somehow, these disparate threads nest and connect, often returning to an exquisite graphic novel that links several of the storylines.
Though apocalyptic societies in literature may seem a bit tired, Station Eleven feels like something special and fresh: a story that occasionally has the adrenaline of The Hunger Games, bolstered by gorgeous sentences and complex characters who mourn for the fallen world, yet find joy in what remains. After playing Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Kirsten reflects on “the state of suspension that always came over her at the end of performances, a sense of having flown very high and landed incompletely, her soul pulling upward out of her chest.” Upon finishing Mandel’s wonderful novel, readers will know the feeling.
RELATED CONTENT: Read a Q&A with Emily St. John Mandel about Station Eleven.