I'm fascinated by apocalypses, and I'm not the only one, so there's always more fiction out there to satisfy my horrified curiosity about what would happen if civilization broke down for one reason or another. I go into these stories with high hopes, but I'm often disappointed, because I usually find something lacking, whether in the premise or the characters or the plot. So I was very excited when STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel not only lived up to my expectations, but earned a spot as one of my favorite books of the year.
The story opens in a Toronto theater, during a production of King Lear, as the lead actor has a heart attack in the middle of a scene. This ominous event introduces us to the characters we'll be following into a world that is just about to change completely. Hospitals are already filling with patients sick from a deadly and highly contagious flu. Soon, very few people will be left alive.
After the opening section, the narrative jumps ahead many years. Life in the wake of the pandemic is both simpler and more difficult. A troupe of actors and musicians travel the coast of Lake Michigan, bringing Shakespeare to settlements of survivors. One of these performers acted in King Lear as a child, right before the collapse. She remembers the kind man who died onstage, but she doesn't remember much else of the time before, or from the terrifying first year.
Fortunately, as readers, we get to know more than any of the characters, and we gradually learn about several different experiences of the immediate aftermath. The story's carefully presented time shifts reveal the connections between a web of fascinating characters who were once part of one another's lives, if only briefly. With this structure, Mandel portrays the intimate, emotional stories of each character while also exploring the broad effects of a worldwide catastrophe.
This is a gripping novel, full of well-developed characters, intriguing mysteries, excellent world-building, and strong writing. At times it's heartbreaking, at times it's amusing, and at every point, it's engrossing. Mandel has three earlier books, and I'm eager to read them all, because she can definitely tell a story.
Good Stuff Out There:
→ On the NaNoWriMo blog, Crystal Chan offers suggestions on How to Write About What You Don't Know: "Take a deep breath, because a heavy dose of research--and humility--will be involved. You can't just conjecture because you'll do so using your own frame of reference. Writing about what you don't know explicitly means that you can't rely on your own experiences. You have to do so much research that this new material becomes what you know."