Stories about the end of the world are not uncommon. While zombies are de rigueur, everything from nuclear destruction (On the Beach) to killer viruses (The Stand) to apocalypses of unknown origin (The Road) has obliterated mankind in modern literature. In Emily St. John Mandel’s slim but engrossing novel Station Eleven, a virus once again has wiped out most human life, but Mandel is more interested in life before the catastrophe.

The book begins one evening in Toronto, just as a serious pandemic is about to decimate the globe. World famous film actor Arthur Leander, now in his fifties, is giving a stage performance of King Lear when a fatal heart attack levels him in front of a shocked audience. Among those in the house is eight-year-old Kirsten Raymonde, who has a small role in the play. Though shielded from Arthur’s final moments, Kirsten will have plenty of horrors to witness as she is one of the few who survives the pandemic. Twenty years later, she is part of a traveling band of minstrels that roams from one ragged settlement to another around the Great Lakes, performing mainly Shakespeare.

In these future scenes, Mandel focuses on memory and how it fades when reminders vanish. Her characters long for orange juice and newspapers, but these things no longer exist. Yet, Kirsten (and the book’s other central characters) all still remember Arthur Leander. Despite his death in the opening pages of Station Eleven, the character looms large. Mandel devotes large portions of the novel to flashback that traces his life from aspiring actor through a series of failed marriages to his death on stage. Kirsten carries whatever Leander memorabilia she can find with her: magazine clippings mainly. She also has two issues of a comic book, its mysterious author only known by their initials, about a character who escapes to a space station after aliens conquer the Earth.

Things begin to go poorly for Kirsten and the other members of her symphony when they arrive at a settlement named St. Deborah by the Water. Though they had visited the town a few years prior, this St. Deborah no longer resembled the one Kirsten remembers. In the intervening time, an insane “prophet” has taken control, enslaving the town and excommunicating anyone who does not agree with his doctrine. When Kirsten hears that friends have left the settlement in search of an airport that has become a shelter, the band sets out to find them. But soon they become hunted by the prophet and his followers.

Station Eleven is an engrossing read, its milieu an exciting one. Mandel weaves a multilayered tale, her characters linked by happy (and often not so happy) coincidence. The man who administers CPR to the dying actor is a former paparazzo who stalked Leander years before. A character who lives in the airport and curates a museum of artifacts such as cellphones and credit cards was Leander’s best friend from youth. Everything and everyone in Station Eleven is interconnected, and part of the fun is discovering just how Mandel’s characters and artifacts all tie back to Leander.

However, some of the coincidences are just too convenient. I figured out the true identity of a major character about 100 pages before the big reveal arrives. Also, the flashback scenes are more interesting than those set post-collapse. The constant peril and existential agony that populates every word of The Road, the unbearable sadness of On the Beach or the overarching evil of The Stand aren’t really factors in Station Eleven. To be honest, people seem to be pretty comfortable given the circumstances. Mandel also botches the chance to make a truly interesting villain in her prophet. He barely graces 20 pages of the novel, if that.

Mandel has written a taut page-turner, yet it is impossible to fully endorse a post-apocalyptic novel when its most interesting character has died in the first chapter and only exists in flashback. In some ways, the end of the world feels like the afterthought here as Arthur Leander and his story emerge as more fully imagined. Perhaps the end of the world doesn’t always have to be bleak. Mandel imbues her tale with hope, the most essential ingredient mankind must have when faced with an awful predicament.

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