by Emily St. John Mandel
Knopf, 338 pp., $24.95
On a winter night in present-day Toronto, an actor collapses onstage during the “mad scene” while playing the title role in “King Lear.” An audience member leaps to his feet and tries to assist under the bright lights and fake snow. Outside the theater real snow is falling and a deadly epidemic is encroaching. The world is about to change, for every single person on the planet.
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Emily St. John Mandel’s darkly lyrical new novel kicks off with this scene — at the “beginning and end of everything” — then follows several key characters both forward and backward in time to give us an appreciation of art, love and the triumph of the human spirit.
After the opening chapters, we’re whisked 20 years into the future, where a group of performers known as the Traveling Symphony is roaming through a dystopian Great Lakes region rehearsing “King Lear.” The Symphony is made of assorted musicians and performers who survived the deadly epidemic in the opening chapters and are walking in the oppressive heat, preparing to perform at the next settlement on their route. When the troupe stumbles upon a self-proclaimed prophet and his followers, Mandel sets in motion a suspenseful storyline that has echoes throughout the book.
Then we head back in time, to a time before the “Georgia flu” as the epidemic is called, when the actor from the opening scenes (Arthur Leander) was famous enough to be hounded by paparazzi while going through a succession of wives and relationships. His first wife, Miranda — a nod to Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” — is a lonely soul who creates a futuristic graphic novel called “Station Eleven,” set on a faraway planet.
Mandel effortlessly moves between time periods, showing us how all these people are connected, through photographs, memories and family bonds. There is a great chapter early on where the members of the Traveling Symphony discuss their grievances, one that rings true of any group of people who spend a lot of time together. The passages involving the troupe’s life together are compelling and moving.
The book is full of beautiful set pieces and landscapes; big, bustling cities before and during the outbreak, an eerily peaceful Malaysian seashore, and an all-but-abandoned Midwest airport-turned museum that becomes an all important setting for the last third of the book.
Mandel ties up all the loose ends in a smooth and moving way, giving humanity to all her characters — both in a world that you might recognize as the one we all live in today (and perhaps take for granted) and a post-apocalyptic world without electricity, smartphones and the Internet. “Station Eleven” is a truly haunting book, one that is hard to put down and a pleasure to read.