Station Eleven CoverThere is something very lovely about this book, a National Book Award finalist. The author, Emily St. John Mandel, delivers a complex tale of the collapse of the modern world and of the interconnectedness of its inhabitants. Not just another post-apocalyptic tale, this novel spans decades and follows five characters whose lives intersect. It is a reflection on the resilience (and fragility) of humanity and on the restorative power of the arts. But these themes emerge slowly over the course of the book, so shame on me for leading with them.

The tale begins in a theater in Toronto, where a famous Hollywood actor is playing King Lear in a stage production. He suffers a medical crisis on stage, and the play cannot be finished. As the other actors linger in the theater’s bar that night, we glimpse their future: “Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.” (Now that’s a hook.)

The same night, Jeevan, an audience member and EMT in training who treated the fallen actor, gets a call from a friend who is a doctor at a Toronto hospital. There’s a flu—the Georgia Flu—and the hospital is filling with patients. He tells Jeevan that the flu is spreading like wildfire (my words, the author is much cleverer) and that it’s a full-fledged epidemic. He warns Jeevan to leave the city. The reader accompanies Jeevan as he buys cartloads of household supplies and holes up in his brother’s high-rise apartment. But soon enough, the story leaps 20 years into the future, and it’s clear that very few survived the Georgia Flu: society as it was at the novel’s beginning has gone.

The story jumps smoothly between past and future. The characters’ lives are interwoven in various ways, and it’s easy to appreciate each unveiling of connection as it appears. There is the usual sense of foreboding that dwells in a post-apocalyptic novel: will this person survive the Flu? will bandits kill them on the road? will they find food? how will they survive? Yet, there is a sense of wonder at the meaningfulness of these lives and of community.

I admit to a bit of bias, because much of the novel is set in Michigan, my home state. But this was the first real page-turner that I’ve read in a long while. And I have to admire St. John Mandel’s work—the novel is well crafted. I would even read this again, and I can’t say that about many books.