Emily St. John Mandel
Ms. Hen first became interested in this book because she saw the author at the Boston Book Festival in October of this year. Ms. Hen is interested in the apocalypse and apocalyptic literature. She likes to wonder what it would be like to be around after civilization collapses. What would happen to the hens, she likes to ponder sometimes when she is walking down the street or brushing her teeth. She doesn’t know if she would have the chicken guts to survive the end of everything.
But the characters in this book survive. At the beginning of the novel, at a performance of KING LEAR in Toronto, a famous actor, Arthur Leander, dies onstage. Jeevan, a man in the audience, jumps up and tries to save him, but unsuccessfully. Immediately afterwards, a pandemic strikes the planet and almost everybody dies. One of the survivors is a child actor in the production of KING LEAR, Kirsten, an eight-year old girl.
The novel follows Kirsten and the Travelling Symphony performing Shakespeare and playing classical music in year Fifteen, fifteen years after the collapse of civilization. The towns surrounding what used to be Toronto are barbaric and uncivilized. There is almost no communication between the settlements. The Travelling Symphony wanders around the area, trying to bring some culture into people’s lives that otherwise would have none.
Kirsten has a best friend in the Symphony, August, with whom she likes to go on search expeditions to find items that were made in the time before. She has a former lover, Dieter; most everyone in the symphony gets on each other’s nerves sometimes, since they spend so much time together, working and trying to survive.
The novel bounces back between the time before and the time after the collapse. We get to know Arthur Leander’s ex-wife Miranda, and his rise to film stardom. Miranda is the artist who created STATION ELEVEN, a graphic novel about a space station, which Kirsten has carried with her the entire time she has been traveling after the pandemic struck. Arthur Leander gave Kirsten the graphic novel right before he died. We meet Jeevan, who had been a paparazzi photographer, stalking Miranda and Arthur, who decided to become an EMT. He was training when he jumped on stage to save Arthur’s life during KING LEAR.
Ms. Hen liked this novel, but she didn’t like it enough. It reminded her of too many other things to truly love it. It made her think of THE HUNGER GAMES, the TV show REVOLUTION, and it had shades of THE ROAD, but not as beautifully written. Another problem Ms. Hen had with this novel was the prose was flat through much of the book. There would be a flash of brilliance, then dullness. Ms. Hen prefers prose that sings. She’s been reading a lot of lovely writing these days, and this book was a stark contrast. The dialogue is awkward and stiff.
The author said in her talk at The Boston Book Festival that she is interested in the lives of actors and that’s why she decided to write about them. However, Ms. Hen is not that interested in the lives of actors. She thinks most of them are self-absorbed narcissistic jerks, and she doesn’t like to spend too much time thinking about their lives. Yes, she loves films and the theater and even TV shows, but she doesn’t care the least bit about the love lives of actors or what they do in their spare time. And she doesn’t think that a novel dedicated to actors' survival in a post-apocalyptic Canada is exactly her cup of tea.
It’s not to say that this is a bad novel. Ms. Hen could understand why some people would like it. It’s an original story, but it just wasn’t what Ms. Hen wants from a book. She gives STATON ELEVEN two and a half feathers up. Maybe almost three feathers for effort and creativity.