I sometimes pick up books pretty much on a whim. I like the cover, or the heft, or the genre, or I’m just in a particular frame of mind that somehow the book syncs with. Which is how I ended up taking a chance on Station Eleven. And I’m so glad I did.
It’s about a world where an apocalyptic flu strain hits, wiping out 99% of the population in a matter of days. At least, that’s the big event that the story hinges around. It’s actually a story that has a lot of layers to it, seeded with a cast of characters all of which have interlocking stories of their own. It’s not particularly a post apocalyptic book, not in the by now traditional sense. It’s set just as much in the pre apocalyptic world with events from one side mirroring events in the other. The narrative flick flacks across the days and decades, from character to character, but it never becomes confusing or opaque. The author has such control, and a lightness of touch, that reading this book has been effortless.
The central conceit at first appears to be a travelling caravan of actors and musicians in the new world that are trying to bring Shakespeare to the scattered settlements of the North American continent. Borders no longer exist. This caravan is called The Symphony and it moves the people and the plot through the novel. But, as much as the book isn’t about the apocalypse, it’s not really about the Bard either. It’s about a great many things and I can’t really decide which is most prominent. It could be nostalgia, or regret, or family, or art, or technology. It’s probably all of them.
What really caught my attention was the efficiency of the writing. Nothing in the narrative is wasted. Every little conversation, relationship, or item is linked back to another point in the story, usually from a completely different angle. The titular Staton Eleven is a location in a comic book within the world, but it’s creator and the physical journey of the comic book both run through the entire book like veins of precious metal through rock.
I also enjoyed the spaces left by the author. When the detail zooms in, it really immerses the reader. But equally there are areas of the world and its cast of characters where you’re left with questions, and that’s fine, because your imagination then helps power the rest of the reading experience.
Lastly, the structure of the story was a surprise and not at all unpleasant. Chapters are distinctly non uniform in length or format. Some are records of interviews, some are no more than a paragraph. Some are more like a discreet short story of a whole lifetime. In lesser hands this could have come over as authorial self indulgence. It never does that. It just keeps you alert, and always turning the next page.
I wasn’t expecting anything when I picked this up, and it absolutely delighted me. When I read it again, and I will, I have no doubt that delight will continue. I think there are still lots of connections for me to unlock, and it’s a world I want to spend more time in. I loved this book, and recommend it without hesitation.