by Emily St. John Mandel
One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time—from the actor’s early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theater troupe known as The Travelling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains—this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor’s first wife, his oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony, caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet. Sometimes terrifying, sometimes tender, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it.”
Unfortunately I struggled through this book. Picked up for being something different to my usual read and drawn in by the front cover, I’d never heard of this book or the author, Emily St. John Mandel but know that she is well reviewed.
It wasn’t that I hated it, it was that I wasn’t engaged. The story begins in present day when a pandemic of ‘Georgia flu’ is beginning to take its first victims. Twenty years later, the world has collapsed and settlements of survivors have formed. This all sounds to me like it would be a good read. However the focus in the new world is on a group of Shakespeare performers called the Travelling Symphony. Most people in this group don’t have names and they are simply referred to by the instrument they play which makes them extremely unmemorable.
“… the situation wasn’t helped by the first flute, who had a habit of sighing loudly whenever the seventh guitar had to stop rehearsal to ask for clarification…”
Very few of these characters are ever explored and those who are don’t have very interesting back stories to tell. I really couldn’t care for the group and when one of the members later died, I found that I couldn’t really recall which one it was.
The story ambitiously continues to flip between some ever so slightly related characters, both in location and in time. We jump pre and post collapse in the eyes of a few different people, all of whom were present or once married to the actor Arthur Leander at the time of his death. We see the first years after the collapse, we see twenty years in and we see a few of the years between. None of this gripped me and I found that a lot of the content seemed to be there for the sake of filling pages.
The one part I really did enjoy was set in an airport at the time of the flu pandemic. With no flights in or out of the airport, the stranded passengers in arrivals began to realise no one was coming for them and slowly create a community of their own.
This book is a mismatch of things that, for me, didn’t sit well together. There is a travelling band, a creepy cult leader, a museum set up in an airport, but nothing seemed to belong or gel.
Overall rating: I know I’m in the minority here but I really couldn’t get into this book. In a post apocalyptic world, a group of travelling musicians and actors wasn’t enough to keep my gripped or engaged. Not awful, but with too much going on and not enough attention paid to characters and crucial plot points, “Station Eleven” is getting 2 stars from me.