Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Book Review: "Station Eleven" by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven Emily St. John Mandel
Published: September 9, 2014
ISBN: 9780385353304
Genre: Futuristic Fiction
Source: Library
Highly Recommended

One snowy night Arthur Leander, a famous actor, has a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo-turned-EMT, is in the audience and leaps to his aid. A child actress named Kirsten Raymonde watches in horror as Jeevan performs CPR, pumping Arthur's chest as the curtain drops, but Arthur is dead. That same night, as Jeevan walks home from the theater, a terrible flu begins to spread. Hospitals are flooded and Jeevan and his brother barricade themselves inside an apartment, watching out the window as cars clog the highways, gunshots ring out, and life disintegrates around them.

Fifteen years later, Kirsten is an actress with the Traveling Symphony. Together, this small troupe moves between the settlements of an altered world, performing Shakespeare and music for scattered communities of survivors. Written on their caravan, and tattooed on Kirsten's arm is a line from Star Trek: "Because survival is insufficient." But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who digs graves for anyone who dares to leave.

Spanning decades, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, this suspenseful, elegiac novel is rife with beauty. As Arthur falls in and out of love, as Jeevan watches the newscasters say their final good-byes, and as Kirsten finds herself caught in the crosshairs of the prophet, we see the strange twists of fate that connect them all. A novel of art, memory, and ambition, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it.

My Thoughts:
This book has been out for less than 6 months and I already feel like I'm the last person in the world to read it.  That alone should tell you something about this book.

The post-apocalyptic theme is big now--I don't want to write it off as a trend (such as the vampires of a few years ago) because I think there is more to it than that.  I think our interest in these storylines says something about where we are in our current world.  While I find the dystopian flavor of this idea to be little too common, I do appreciate books such as Station Eleven (and Karen Thompson Walker's The Age of Miracles) that take a more present look at a post-apocalyptic world.

There are three major time settings in this book. We start as the pandemic--the Georgia Flu--hits the world and kills the vast majority of the population.  Mandel doesn't focus too much on the actual deaths, but rather on the survivors, which is something I appreciated (especially as I started reading this shortly after my own bout wit an obviously less deadly, but still icky, flu)..  We then jump ahead almost 2 decades where the world is a lawless place populated by small settlements in the ruins of our current world.  In the midst of this, we also have flashbacks to well before the pandemic and the life of the actor Arthur Leander, his friend Clark, and his 3 ex-wives.

I should warn potential readers here that this is a book based at least equally on flashbacks as on the current narrative.  Mandel handles this with ease and I think she uses these different pieces well to bring the story together  However, I know that there are people who don't like excessive use of flashbacks in use.  While I don't think that Mandel's use is excessive, I can see how it might not work for some readers.

Mandel's language is just lovely and I found her way of taking the mundane and making it art interesting.  For example, there is a fair amount of Shakespeare in this story--Arthur dies during a performance of King Lear, the actors from the Traveling Symphony perform A Midsummer Night's Dream, and the entire plot is, well, Shakespearean.  However, in the same way and given almost the same weight, are lines from Star Trek: Voyager.  And,no, it does not come across as pop culture pandering.  Instead, it shows that there is art and beauty in every age (I'll take Mandel's word on the importance of Star Trek: Voyager, though...)

It is hard to pinpoint one main character in this novel.  There is Arthur, who dies as the novel begins, but whose life ties everything together.  Circling around Arthur are 2 of his 3 ex-wives, his best friend, the man who tried to save his life, and the child actress who witnessed his death. Other than ex-wife #2 who was more a plot device than anything, these character worked their way into my heart and I think I fell a little bit in love with all of them.

This book is a quiet one, quieter than one might expect after reading the synopsis.  It is not as if nothing happens in this book, but it is much more concerned with the characters, their lives, and their experiences that create the beauty of this book.  I would recommend this book to anyone (who doesn't have a flashback aversion).

I was not solicited for this review and I received no compensation for this post.

Station Eleven
by Emily St. John Mandel

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