Some books you just can't wait for. I was on the hold list for Station Eleven at my library for two long months before finally realizing the ebook is on sale for $6. For one of the most-hyped books of the year, I figured it was a safe bet. I jumped out of the hold line in a blur of excitement and purple hair extensions.
And I was far from disappointed. Station Eleven defies classification. It's literary but compulsively readable. It's dystopian but teems with art and hope. It's about a global pandemic but deals more with life and what makes it worth living than death. I love books that feel like nothing I've ever read before, and Station Eleven was a brand-new experience for me. (2014 has been a great year for books like this—The Bone Clocks and The Book of Strange New Things come to mind as similarly unique, richly-imagined novels.)
Station Eleven centers around a handful of compelling characters, depicting their lives both before and after the world is nearly destroyed by the Georgia Flu. You'd think a dystopian novel would be primarily about the crisis, the incident that brought humankind to its knees, but Mandel doesn't dwell on the devastation of the first few days and weeks. Instead, we get to follow a Traveling Symphony as they go from town to town performing Shakespeare. We watch survivors of the epidemic cobble together a living from ingeniously salvaged items. We see our world, broken down and remade, and with relief, recognize that some of the best elements still endure.
Interestingly enough, the central character of the novel is a man who dies before the flu even breaks out. Arthur, a famous film actor playing the role of King Lear in a stage production, dies of a heart attack during a performance. His sudden death feels like both a catalyst and a frame for the rest of the novel, which consists of the struggles and triumphs of the other characters in his orbit, as well as flashbacks to Arthur's former life. I'm almost disappointed that I haven't read Lear more recently—I'm sure my reading of the novel would have been enhanced if the play were fresher in my mind. (Not disappointed enough to force my way back through a Shakespearean tragedy, though, I should admit.)
If you're looking for a post-apocalyptic nightmare scenario with zombies and gratuitous violence, you will not find that in Station Eleven. But you will get something much better and more original. This one is definitely worth a purchase or, if you have the patience for it, a long wait at the library.