Station Eleven is a “pandemic book” that came out before the COVID-19 pandemic – and proved to be scarily prescient. While conditions in our world never reached the dire circumstances described in the book (95% death rate, the end of electricity, a plunge into primitive living conditions), I can better imagine such things happening now. What happens to a civilization when its people are totally unprepared for its collapse? How do we rebuild? How do we hold onto hope? Station Eleven offers insights into these questions without being preachy – the reader is given a lush description of this post-pandemic world, which encourages reflection.
The book begins with a performance of King Lear in a Canadian theater, during which the pandemic first takes hold. We follow the actors, audience members, and medical personnel as they grapple with this unexpected sickness that seems to be sweeping the population. Some are afraid, others are quick to dismiss it as nothing. Fast forward about twenty years, to a world without lights, gasoline, computers, supermarkets – the elements of “civilization” are gone. We join the “Traveling Symphony,” a group of itinerant actors and musicians, who are trying to keep the arts alive through performances of Shakespeare plays and classical music.
The members of the Symphony struggle with despair and hope, with trying to focus on beauty while surrounded with ugliness. They worry about staying alive, and what the world might be like in the future. Is there any point in carrying on? Will there ever be a breakthrough, a watershed moment when humanity will regain what’s been lost?
The narrative is very immersive, so the reader can imagine what it would be like to live in such a world – and the likelihood that these things could really happen to all of us. During 2020, many of us experienced the mental health challenges of navigating the mundane (procuring groceries) and the profound (millions of deaths, lack of a vaccine, no end in sight). What happens to the human spirit under such conditions? Do we give in to despair, or become our best selves?
While this book isn’t new, it’s not “dated.” It’s a favorite that I’ll be keeping on my shelf, and returning to. I encourage you to give it a read – and expect to be moved. You’ll be thinking about this book long after you turn the last page.
(This book was a Book of the Month offering in February 2015: https://www.bookofthemonth.com/all-books/station-eleven-34)