Heart-breaking. Poignant. Hopeful. How does one describe Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel? I had heard so many good things about this book, Mandel's fourth, that I rather expected to be disappointed. I was not. I was blown away.
"The king stood in a pool of blue light, unmoored." This is how the novel opens. The king is Lear, played by Arthur Leander (a kingly name, if there ever was one), and we spend the rest of this post-apocalyptic book mooring him. We follow the lines of his life backward to the world as it was and forward into the world beyond, through the eyes of a former wife, his best friend, the man who tried to save his life, and most especially the child actor on stage with him as he died, on the last day of normalcy, on that last day before the world ended. In doing so, we moor ourselves in the strange place that the world has become.
It is a book of mourning, mourning Arthur, mourning the lost world that he lived his life in, the world we live in now and take so much for granted. Most of the story takes place in Year 20, after the Georgian Flu has wiped out almost all of humanity and its works, when the Internet and refrigeration and democracy and international borders and grocery stores have become fading memories morphing into myth, and when the post-apocalypse chaos is slowly settling into a new normalcy. Kirsten Raymonde, the child actor, is now 28, and moves through the wilds of what used to be Michigan with a symphony and theater troupe, bringing Beethoven and Shakespeare to the tiny settlements clustered around former hotels, gas stations, and airports. They are not only doing their normal rounds, they are searching for two of their troupe members they had to leave behind on their last circuit. In doing so they will encounter both the best and the worst of what the world has become and find themselves fighting yet again to survive.
The title, Station Eleven, is taken from a graphic novel written by Leander's first wife, a copy of which Kirsten carries everywhere she goes. She will find someone else in her travels who knows the obscure book, drawing the mooring lines together in a complicated knot.
Humanity is struggling to find its moorings also and amidst the bleakness and deprivation, hope—like fireweed—is taking hold. In the meanwhile, the troupe travels with bows and knives, both to hunt for food and to defend themselves against the human predators they encounter. Kirsten herself has two knives tattooed on her wrist, mementos of what she has had to do to stay alive.
I do have a bone to pick with Alfred A. Knopf though. This book deserved a better cover than a stock photo with only a tenuous connection to the book. Yes, they both feature tents, but everything after that is just wrong.
Post-apocalyptic dystopias are technically science fiction, but Mandel's telling of the fall of civilization is done with such breath-taking beauty and depth of characterization and emotion that her novel holds its own beautifully in the literary category also. In short, it meets my qualifications for Gourmet Fiction. This one hits all the bases and does everything right. After reading it, I spent a couple of days moving through life with a sense of awe that it still existed and with an ache in my heart for its potential loss. There aren't many books that can affect me that deeply.