January and February in Northern Michigan have been brutally cold and dark. Only in the past week has daylight lasted beyond 6pm. Temperatures have been bone chilling. With no time to explore during the weekdays, and weekends spent shuttling kids between basketball games and ski hills, I have found time to catch up on my reading during the past few months. Last week, I was introduced to a literary-fiction novel set in Northern Michigan that I would love to share.
Canadian author Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven opens with a production of Shakespeare’s King Lear in Toronto. Arthur Leander, a 51-year-old Hollywood legend, suffers a fatal heart attack while performing on stage. Unfortunately, his fans will not have time to mourn his untimely death. That same night a pandemic from Eurasia, the Georgian Flu, sweeps throughout the world, killing 99.99% of humanity within a few weeks.
This charming novel is primarily set in a dystopian Northern Michigan. The central character is Kirsten Raymonde, a twenty-eight year old cast member of a group of Shakespearean actors and orchestral musicians called the Traveling Symphony. The symphony brings culture to small encampments of under 30 people that have settled in the ruins of Mackinaw City, East Jordan, Traverse City and ‘New Petoskey’ (along with the fictional cities of St. Deborah by the Water and Severn City).
While Station Eleven takes place in a dystopian future, this is not the Walking Dead or Stephen King’s The Stand. Instead of showcasing humanity’s fall into violence and horror, Mandel focuses her work on art. Music, theater, movies, and comic books all play an important role in the story. Sure there are scenes of violence (both shown and implied), but the bulk of the novel takes place 20 years after the fall of civilization, when humans are more interested in rebuilding than tearing down. ‘Survival is insufficient’ is the motto of the novel, a quote taken from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager. The novel proves this point by not only showing a humanity starving for culture and civilization, but also reminding us what was best about the world lost.
Mandel utilizes flashbacks and her superb ability to make her characters lifelike to introduce multiple mysteries into the narrative. She nimbly interweaves all of her characters’ lives, histories, and fates into a web of clues and questions. Who was V.? Why does the main villain have a dog with the same name as a character in Kirsten’s comic book? What is the Museum of Civilization, and how does it connect with the villain? What happened to Charlie and the sixth guitar? How are these character’s all connected, and is that connection important to the story?
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It reminded me, in a lot of ways, of the television show Lost. Great characters that I grew attachments for. A twisting and expertly weaved plot. Flashbacks. Survival in the wild. Unlike Lost, however, Station Eleven has an ending that not only satisfies the reader, but leaves him wanting more.
Station Eleven was a finalist for the National Book Awards’ 2014 Fiction Novel of the Year.