Books·First Look

Read an excerpt from Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Michael Greyeyes will champion Station Eleven on Canada Reads 2023. The debates take place March 27-30.

Michael Greyeyes will champion Station Eleven on Canada Reads 2023

A book cover featuring a series of tents under a starry night sky and the book's author, an elfin woman with short hair looking straight at the camera.
Station Eleven is a novel by Emily St. John Mandel. (Sarah Shatz, Harper Perennial)

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is a dystopian novel that takes place on an Earth undone by disease, following the interconnected lives of several characters — actors, artists and those closest to them — before and after the plague. One travels the wasteland performing Shakespearean plays with a troupe, while another attempts to build community at an abandoned airport and another amasses followers for a dangerous cause.

Station Eleven will be championed by actor, director and choreographer Michael Greyeyes on Canada Reads 2023.

The Canada Reads debates will take place on March 27-30. This year, we are looking for one book to shift your perspective. 

They will be hosted by Ali Hassan and will be broadcast on CBC Radio OneCBC TVCBC Gem and on CBC Books

You can read an excerpt from Station Eleven below.

Twenty years after the end of air travel, the caravans of the Travelling Symphony moved slowly under a white-hot sky. It was the end of July, and the 25-year-old thermometer affixed to the back of the lead caravan read 106 Fahrenheit, 41 Celsius. They were near Lake Michigan but they couldn't see it from here. Trees pressed in close at the sides of the road and erupted through cracks in the pavement, saplings bending under the caravans and soft leaves brushing the legs of horses and Symphony alike. The heat wave had persisted for a relentless week.

LISTEN | Emily St. John Mandel discusses Station Eleven with Shelagh Rogers:

The author of "Station Eleven" on her bestselling debut novel, and why post-apocalyptic fiction is all the rage. (Broadcast date: May 11, 2015)

Most of them were on foot to reduce the load on the horses, who had to be rested in the shade more frequently than anyone would have liked. The Symphony didn't know this territory well and wanted to be done with it, but speed wasn't possible in this heat. They walked slowly with weapons in hand, the actors running their lines and the musicians trying to ignore the actors, scouts watching for danger ahead and behind on the road. "It's not a bad test," the director had said, earlier in the day. Gil was 72 years old, riding in the back of the second caravan now, his legs not quite what they used to be. "If you can remember your lines in questionable territory, you'll be fine onstage."

"Enter Lear," Kirsten said. Twenty years earlier, in a life she mostly couldn't remember, she had had a small nonspeaking role in a short-lived Toronto production of King Lear. Now she walked in sandals whose soles had been cut from an automobile tire, three knives in her belt. She was carrying a paperback version of the play, the stage directions highlighted in yellow. "Mad," she said, continuing, "fantastically dressed with wild flowers."

"But who comes here?" the man learning the part of Edgar said. His name was August, and he had only recently taken to acting. He was the second violin and a secret poet, which is to say no one in the Symphony knew he wrote poetry except Kirsten and the seventh guitar. "The safer sense will ne'er accommodate ... will ne'er accommodate ... line?"

"His master thus," Kirsten said.

"Cheers. The safer sense will ne'er accommodate his master thus."

The caravans had once been pickup trucks, but now they were pulled by teams of horses on wheels of steel and wood. All of the pieces rendered useless by the end of gasoline had been removed — the engine, the fuel-supply system, all the other components that no one under the age of 20 had ever seen in operation — and a bench had been installed on top of each cab for the drivers. The cabs were stripped of everything that added excess weight but left otherwise intact, with doors that closed and windows of difficult-to-break automobile glass, because when they were travelling through fraught territory it was nice to have somewhere relatively safe to put the children. The main structures of the caravans had been built in the pickup beds, tarps lashed over frames. The tarps on all three caravans were painted gunmetal grey, with the travelling symphony lettered in white on both sides.

"No, they cannot touch me for coining," Dieter said over his shoulder. He was learning the part of Lear, although he wasn't really old enough. Dieter walked a little ahead of the other actors, murmuring to his favourite horse. The horse, Bernstein, was missing half his tail, because the first cello had just restrung his bow last week.

"Oh," August said, "thou side-piercing sight!"

"You know what's side-piercing?" the third trumpet muttered.

"Listening to King Lear three times in a row in a heat wave."

"You know what's even more side-piercing?" Alexandra was 15, the Symphony's youngest actor. They'd found her on the road as a baby. "Travelling for four days between towns at the far edge of the territory."

"What does side-piercing mean?" Olivia asked. She was six years old, the daughter of the tuba and an actress named Lin, and she was riding in the back of the second caravan with Gil and a teddy bear.

"We'll be in St. Deborah by the Water in a couple of hours," Gil said. "There's absolutely nothing to worry about."

There was the flu that exploded like a neutron bomb over the surface of the earth and the shock of the collapse that followed...

There was the flu that exploded like a neutron bomb over the surface of the earth and the shock of the collapse that followed, the first unspeakable years when everyone was travelling, before everyone caught on that there was no place they could walk to where life continued as it had before and settled wherever they could, clustered close together for safety in truck stops and former restaurants and old motels. The Travelling Symphony moved between the settlements of the changed world and had been doing so since five years after the collapse, when the conductor had gathered a few of her friends from their military orchestra, left the air base where they'd been living, and set out into the unknown landscape.

By then most people had settled somewhere, because the gasoline had all gone stale by Year Three and you can't keep walking forever. After six months of travelling from town to town — the word town used loosely; some of these places were four or five families living together in a former truck stop — the conductor's orchestra had run into Gil's company of Shakespearean actors, who had all escaped from Chicago together and then worked on a farm for a few years and had been on the road for three months, and they'd combined their operations.

LISTEN | Emily St. John Mandel on the TV adaptation of Station Eleven:

Reading the description of the new HBO Max miniseries Station Eleven feels a bit eerie. The story is set in the future after a deadly flu pandemic has wiped out 99.9 per cent of the world’s population — and yet the post-apocalyptic series has somehow become comfort viewing for many in the era of COVID-19. Tom Power caught up with Canadian author Emily St. John Mandel, who wrote the novel the series was based on.

Twenty years after the collapse they were still in motion, travelling back and forth along the shores of Lakes Huron and Michigan, west as far as Traverse City, east and north over the 49th parallel to Kincardine. They followed the St. Clair River south to the fishing towns of Marine City and Algonac and back again. This territory was for the most part tranquil now. They encountered other travellers only rarely, peddlers mostly, carting miscellanea between towns.

Excerpt from Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel ©2014. Published in Canada by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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