I was reading this novel while listening to the audiobook of the People of Sparks. Both are set in a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by disease and reading them together offered interesting intersecting views of our fears. As in the weeks after watching Contagion, I found myself monitoring my health very closely and eyeing anyone around me who sniffled or looked ill.
The novel begins brilliantly, with a production of King Lear in which the aging actor playing Lear collapses and dies on stage. A man jumps on stage and begins CPR. This man, the family of the dead actor, and a young actress who had a non-speaking part in the production, play key roles in the look we have at the world after the epidemic that destroys civilization.
Once in the post-apocalyptic world, we follow a group of traveling actors and musicians who stage productions of Shakespeare up and down the western coast of Michigan. Shakespeare, who also lived through plague and experienced the death of many close to him. The chapters move between this post-apocalyptic world and the days before the epidemic. They focus particularly on the life of the dead actor and the people who were most important to him.
Either Arthur, the dead actor, or Kirsten, the child actor, are the main character–or maybe both. Kirsten is our window onto the theater troupe and her memories inform our vision of the days after the epidemic until the events of the novel. She cannot remember her parents’ faces or the days after the epidemic, but collects celebrity gossip magazines, which she scours for stories about Arthur or his ex-wives. She carries few possessions, but among them are two limited edition comic books set in a post-apocalyptic world, Station Eleven.
Emily St. John Mandel weaves this story expertly and turns a mirror on the reader and our society without sounding preachy. This would be an interesting film adaptation, which we may see, since its rights have been purchased already.