Mix one part page-turning post-apocalyptic (lite) story with one part semi-stressed-out reader and one part extremely vivid imagination and what do you end up with? One hugely unputdownable read verging on the almost-too-real creepy. And to think I had this one checked out and in my hands before the holidays and returned it unread. But I do believe timing is everything and the moment was just not right back then. Boy was it right when I picked it up for the second time. You may have heard of Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven? I can't predict if it will end up on the Baileys Prize shortlist, but it will most certainly end up on my own best reads of the year list later on.
I can tell you exactly the last time I read a book of the same edge-of-your-seat, almost too suspenseful caliber. It was Tom Rob Smith's Child 44. While the two stories are quite different, both have that same quality of storytelling where you get so literally wrapped up in the lives of the characters that they take on a certain reality. The Smith novel was perhaps more heart-stopping in the final chase, while the St. John Mandel had a unrelenting pacing that seemed to gain momentum as the story rolled out and took shape into a large picture.
The story begins on stage with Shakespeare's play King Lear being performed. The actor playing Lear has a heart attack mid-performance, drops to the stage and will pass away. One of the members of the audience who knew the actor rushes up to try and resuscitate him unsuccessfully. Amidst the other actors on stage is a young girl playing Lear's daughter and she witnesses this awful scene. Already we are introduced to three of the main characters who are going to either tell the story or be integral to the telling even while they are no longer present in the here and now. This happens to be the last day of the world as we know it.
When I first picked up the book I read to about the point in the story where the heart attack occurs. A play where an actor dies? I knew that the story would move around in time and that the young girl would become part of a traveling troupe of actors and musicians. Somehow this just didn't quite appeal to me. I should have kept reading. By the end of chapter two she had me hooked. Don't worry, I am not going to spoil anything . . .
"In the lobby, the people gathered at the bar clinked their glasses together. 'To Arthur', they said. They drank for a few more minutes and then went their separate ways in the storm."
"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."
Yikes. What? I knew more or less what the story was about, but maybe less than more and none but the most mentioned details. That same night a plane lands in Toronto, where the story begins. The flight originated in the country of Georgia bringing with it a particularly deadly strain of flu. In this global world of interconnectedness the Georgia flu will spread like tentacles of an octopus to all corners of the globe, swift and efficient and decimating almost entire populations of every city in every country. By the next day it is already too late.
Fast forward to year twenty. The world, far more violent and frightening, has continued but will never be the same. Now the story moves to "after". After the flu, after the pandemic, after all those people tried to flee (to where?) where there are no longer cities only settlements and a troupe of actors and musicians moves from place to place performing. It's all disorganization bordering on lawlessness. And here's where the story begins. That first day after begins year one and carries on.
There are a number of threads in this story and St. John Mandel weaves them together like the finest piece of silk fabric. That fateful night on stage, the actors, the audience, the friends are all important and connected but you won't realize it at first and not to know how they are connected or why it is important, and this is where her fine skills as a storyteller come into play. You might wonder what "Station Eleven" means and it has great significance and pulls those threads all together.
This is such a masterfully told story and if you are willing to give yourself over (and I always am) you will feel like you are submerging yourself under water, into a vivid new and very different world and only after turning that last page do you come up for air. Oh, yes, there is a real world out there. I do indeed have a very vivid imagination and of late life has been crazy and a little stressful. The author gives you all sorts of visuals and if you allow yourself to fill in the blanks . . . and I did, it wasn't just a page turner, but a creepy look at a 'what if' situation. What makes this so impressive for me is that the story is just one step away from being really plausible. Watch the news and see how your local hospital has admitted a new Ebola patient (which has happened recently in Omaha) and think of all those planes criss-crossing the continent and the globe. It couldn't happen, surely we're too prepared and advanced. But, maybe it could happen?
I thought of picking up Cormac McCarthy's The Road next, but then I quickly reconsidered. It, too, will have its moment. Station Eleven may be a Dystopian story, but it is not without hopefulness. Despite the awful thought of what could happen, it never felt like an entirely bleak and unforgiving world. Definitely recommended.