When famed actor Arthur Leander dies onstage in the midst of a performance of King Lear in Toronto, Jeevan hangs around long enough for the young child actress nearby, Kirsten, to be taken care of by her wrangler before he heads home into the snowy night after failing to revive the actor. Nobody would have suspected that mere hours later, a massive flu pandemic would hit and everyone’s lives are forever changed. Cut to fifteen years later, and Kirsten has not only survived but now acts with the Travelling Symphony, a group of actors and musicians who tour what’s left of civilization bringing Shakespeare and music to other survivors.
The title of this novel has significance within the context of the story, but may not convey the intricately woven story at first glance. Readers who pick up this book will be in for a fascinating and compelling journey in a world that’s frighteningly probable. Mandel takes a seasonal event like the flu and blows it into worldwide proportions. While the author doesn’t specifically address flu shots, I personally found it an interesting take into a flu pandemic when every flu season debates arise about whether people should get their shots or not.
I also love reading books set in Toronto, and Station Eleven infused aspects of the city so well into its story. She writes with such detail about specifics that a Torontonian reading it feels right at home. From the green & orange cabs, harbourfront condos and locations mentioned like the Elgin Winter Garden Theatre or Allan Gardens, readers can tell that Mandel had spent some time in the city.
When starting Station Eleven, I wasn’t too sure what to expect other than Toronto being a setting and theatre was involved. What transpires over the course of 333 pages is not only a literal journey as we follow the Travelling Symphony across a decimated landscape, but also a journey in time as the narrative jumps back in time to different moments of all the characters’ lives. I worried that it might be confusing and hard to follow, and admittedly I felt some parts felt like it dragged a bit. I also found the ratio of characters/survivors a bit skewed, or convenient, given the global scale of the killer flu. That being said, overall it was a successful method to flesh out the full story. Events happen and the significance of it isn’t revealed until later, flashbacks that vary from both pre- and post-pandemic.
Mandel weaves a complex tale of people who are brought together and connected by a pandemic that wipes out most of civilization. It’s a fascinating and suspenseful read as the story pulls together, stories of survival in a present-day dystopia.