Everyone loves Shakespeare. His works have survived for centuries and still have universal appeal today. And years after a deadly contagion wipes out most of the human race in Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, Shakespeare is survived through the Traveling Symphony.
Kirsten Raymonde and the Traveling Symphony trek across what-used-to-be Michigan performing Shakespeare. A zealous prophet has taken over the small settlement of St. Deborah by the Water. Arthur Leander, a world-famous actor, dies on stage the same night the Georgia Flu reaches North America. And Jeevan, a former paparazzo, learns of the plague in time to prepare.
This story bounces from character to character, waltzes across time and place, and is told from an all-seeing, all-knowing storyteller. The organization is borderline chaotic, but it works. It really really works.
And it works because, with these storylines put together, they collectively tell a story about survival. Arthur must learn to survive in a world created by his fame. Jeevan must learn to survive the Georgia Flu without the company of his brother. Miranda finds a way to survive through her comic books. Elizabeth and Tyler try to find an explanation for their miraculous survival, and Kirsten and the Traveling Symphony perform Shakespeare because they believe survival is insufficient.
Everyone in this story, both before and after the plague, struggles with survival, and it’s up to the reader to interpret how this survival is represented. For some characters, survival is literal. For others, survival is more figurative. How does one survive once they’ve already passed on? Why do some individuals survive when others don’t? How does Shakespeare contribute to survival?
Shakespeare’s work plays a significant role in Station Eleven. Both King Lear and A Midsummer Night’s Dream are featured prominently in the novel, and, coincidentally, are two of Shakespeare’s works that I’m unfamiliar with. (For the record, I’m unfamiliar with most of Shakespeare’s work, excluding what I read in high school.) I’m sure there are some interesting parallels to be drawn between the plays and this novel, but unfortunately, if there they went over my head. This is to no detriment of the work, however—it is definitely possible to love this book without an understanding of Shakespeare. I loved this book.
Mandel’s prose is magic, too. The prose flowed effortlessly from page to page, compelling me to keep on turning even when I was too tired to continue reading. Station Eleven took me two weeks to read, but those two weeks felt fuller, felt more jam-packed with deep subject matter than most of the weeks I’ve spent reading other books. Maybe that was because this is adult fiction, which always feels deeper and more introspective than the YA I read, but this book really made me think.
Station Eleven is one of those books you just can’t put down. It’s lyrical prose and heavy, dramatic, and, at times, dark subject matter drew me in. It’s intertwined characters and storylines kept me entertained, and it’s questions surrounding survival left me in a state of stupor after finishing. Read this book. Everyone loves Shakespeare, and everyone will also love Station Eleven.