20 years after a flu virus has decimated civilization, the surviving population live in small factions, scattered across the country. The Traveling Symphony moves from town to town providing enjoyment in the form of Shakespeare and music for those that remain. For Kirsten Raymonde, who was 8 when the pandemic hit, her memories of life before the virus have slowly faded. However, she will always remember when she starred in a bit part in a Toronto production of King Lear alongside the famous actor Arthur Leander. She will also remember the night the flu arrived as it was the same night that Arthur Leander suffered a heart attack and died on-stage. Now she travels with the Symphony, performing her own rendition of King Lear.
The narration in this book is not linear. It jumps around in time and goes forward and back. And although he died in the first chapter, Arthur is at the center of this story. Flashbacks take us back in time to Arthur’s early life and career, before the virus appeared. We learn about his life and relationships and his connections to the other main characters in the book.
Life after the flu outbreak is typical of a post-apocalyptic society. The flu wiped out people within 48 hours and with the majority of the population dead, civilization deteriorated within weeks. There is no running water, no electricity, and no government. People get around by walking or by horseback. Factions of survivors form their own towns and civilizations. Buildings and roads are decrepit and crumbling, and cities as we know them are no more.
I felt this was mainly a book about how society copes and moves on after a pandemic and how it keeps the memories of this past society alive. It touched on issues of people not remembering what electricity was like, what it was like to have air conditioning and heating, or to fly in an airplane, and what the Internet was. It also touched on the question of how to teach children about those things and the past. This book is about how society perseveres when faced with destruction and how it builds itself back up again.
There were a couple of scenes in this book that I thought were captivating and spoke about our society. In one scene, two brothers are waiting out the virus in an apartment. It’s been a number of days since the virus broke and one brother is imaging what he will do when the Red Cross finally arrives. He thinks about how he’ll feel when they pull a blanket over his shoulders and hand him a cup of coffee and tell him that he made it. In another scene, survivors are trapped at an airport and they keep wondering when the National Guard will arrive to rescue them. Needless to say, neither the Red Cross nor National Guard arrived. I thought these scenes were poignant and bittersweet because those are the images that, if there was a plague or natural disaster of that magnitude, we are led to believe will happen. After all, it’s what happens in the movies and on television and it was just heartbreaking to read about these characters that were waiting to be saved. It’s definitely what I would imagine would happen if I were the survivor of a plague. We are conditioned to wait for the National Guard, or the military, or the Red Cross to show up. But what happens when they don’t?
I did find it interesting though – I would think that with 99% of the population dead, why would people have to loot grocery stores or live in abandoned fast-food restaurants? If everyone was dead within a few weeks, I would imagine that there would be plenty of extra food to eat. Also, why are people living in fast-food restaurants and gas stations when there are empty houses everywhere? There is no electricity, but what about solar power or wind power? Additionally, there’s a lot of mystery behind the virus, as we never really know what the virus was, how it was transported, and why some people seemed to be immune to it. All we know is that it originated in the Republic of Georgia, which led to its moniker, the Georgia Flu, which one character described as “disarmingly pretty”.
I enjoyed this book and thought it was a good read. Station Eleven was my book club’s latest pick. A couple of the women in the group loved this book and thought it was the best book they’ve read in a while. While I did enjoy this book, I can’t say it was the best book. Still, I would definitely recommend it. I also heard it’s been optioned to be made into a movie which I will definitely see when it comes out.