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Every year I keep my eye out for gift-condition books on the library book sale shelf to put in my family’s stockings for Christmas. This year I gave The Computer Scientist Station Eleven and then a couple of days later, swiped it off his nightstand so I could read it myself.

It is, as so many other reviewers have noted, a terrific book. Unfortunately, I never had a really good long chunk of time to savor it, but even in 15-20 minute dips, I really enjoyed it. The premise, on the off chance you haven’t heard, is that a virulent strain of swine flu wipes out 90% of the population. It arrives in Toronto by plane and in the opening chapters of the book we meet a few residents of that city who are at a performance of King Lear. The famous actor playing Lear has a heart attack; by the time the performers and audience have left the theater the pandemic is already spreading.

The rest of the book is about those people and their family and close friends before and after the pandemic and the subsequent collapse of civilization. Kirsten, a child actor at the time of the collapse who later joins the “Traveling Symphony,” a group of survivors performing classical music and Shakespeare; Jeevan, a former paparazzi & celebrity reporter who was training as a paramedic when the world ended; Arthur, the famous actor playing Lear; Arthur’s best friend Clark. Station Eleven is the title of a comic book Arthur’s first wife Miranda spent years creating, which turns out to be important to Kirsten, and to play a role in the outcome of the story.

Both the characters in Station Eleven and the writing are wonderful. Passages like this abound: “She imagined Clark hanging up the receiver in his office in Manhattan. This was during the final month of the era when it was possible to press a series of buttons on a telephone and speak with someone on the far side of the earth.”

I enjoyed James Howard Kuntsler’s A World Made by Hand a few years ago, but in that book, although there are epidemics, the world has come to a halt primarily because of human heedlessness, greed, mismanagement, and aggression and that’s an undercurrent of the entire novel. In Station Eleven the crux of the story is what St. John Mandel‘s characters are thinking and feeling and doing, what makes them tick before and after the catastrophe. Each of them wonders at some point how they should live, what they should do. Looking at their lives before and their lives after makes the questions that much richer.

One of my favorite things about fiction is that it can provoke us into examining reality differently. When I read something that makes me look around and think, “wow,” because I was deeply in the world of the book, and the contrast with my own world feels a little like waking up, I know I’ve read something good. Station Eleven makes me look around and think, “wow,” even now, twenty-four hours after I finished it.

 

 

 

 

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