Hillary St. John Mandel's remarkable Station Eleven, ** is an apocalyptic (and post apocalyptic) novel that despite its contemporary setting and clean, modern prose, reads like the middle passage of a good fairy tale, with its dangerous but transformative journey through the dark woods. The story is book-ended at the beginning by the moment the world was changed when a virus wipes out most of humanity, and then, just before the end, when we return to the opening events of the narrative, the death of an actor from a heart attack hours before the virus descends.
But the main narrative of Station Eleven occurs fifteen years or so afterwards -- as a troupe of mostly young musicians and sometime actors known as The Symphony travel through the re-forested wild the Great Lakes region. I am partial to tales of traveling theater groups -- they provide a microcosm of the world at large, struggling to reconstruct a new identity and anticipate a future for the community. Itinerant, they travel through the woods, sheltering in small enclaves and connecting these disparate sites of humanity through their performances of Shakespeare and orchestral music. The Symphony's motto "Survival is insufficient" (taken from a past pop culture reference to those other travelers of "Star Trek) expresses the need to center a new humanity through the restorative and collaborative lens of art and culture. Indeed so close is this association between art and human beings, that the musicians are identified as often by their instrument and numeric place in the orchestra as they are by their given names.
There are multiple rites of passage in these dark and fertile woods, in they plays they choose to perform -- Midsummer's Night's Dream -- and in the dangers they encounter on the forested roads, notably the "ferals," human beings who have no culture, no art, only the instinct to prey on humanity. The young musicians are tested, in love, in loyalty, and in the courage required to shape the boundaries of a New Eden in which to inhabit. There are also elders -- those adults who survived the initial outbreak and act as mentors and archivists of a world that has past away forever. At an abandoned airport that becomes a permanent "village" of once stranded passengers, an older businessman establishes a museum of artifacts of the past: iPads, laptops, cell phones, drivers licenses, magazines and such. Newcomers to the airport hand over these once precious objects to the museum, to serve as curiosities and memento mori of the old world.
As much as I enjoyed the novel with its rich and complicated plot lines, there was one idea that troubled me. The only genuine villain is a violent and cruel young man who establishes himself as a "Prophet" -- doing those sorts of dastardly things we associate with a zealot religious type. This seemed to set up a dichotomy between the destructive force of religious faith (even one that's invented) versus art and culture (which here rests on the traditions of the past) as the true agent of creative change. The title of the novel comes from the title of a wildly inventive graphic novel drawn and penned by a character before the virus struck, who is only fully alive when she is engaged in creating her alternative world. It is an obsession (a personal and private faith) but it becomes a sacred text of sorts to the young protagonist to whom a copy is given and whose journey is central to the novel. The mystical images and text of an imaginative story become the metaphorical map for transformation for the next generation. I do like the mystical passages in the graphic novel and think that Mandel has given the reader something special in its creation. An emotional density that is quite appealing. I just wish that the lines between religion and art had not been drawn so purposefully in opposition.
On a side note -- if you are partial to Mandel's Station Eleven, I do recommend Thaliad by Marly Youmans -- a gorgeous post apocalyptic novel written in epic style blank verse. Here's my review from a while ago -- and while it is an adult novel, I do think any teen would find it immediately compelling.
**Station Eleven has been nominated for quite a few awards -- among them the Arthur C. Clarke Award (which she won) and a finalist in the National Book Award.