Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
An audacious, darkly glittering novel set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse, Station Eleven tells the spellbinding story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.
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.
I have never read a book like this before. It’s more a series of snapshots than a cohesive story, and yet, I loved it. It follows a handful of main characters all centered around one man who died of a heart attack the night before the world ended. I was riveted by the details of this post apocalyptic world. Unlike most stories of this kind, it was a very realistic portrayal of the near future (assuming a pandemic were to break out) vs. a distant, new social structure type future.
The story is not laid out linearly. Instead, it jumps around a lot, both in time and with characters. But somehow the genius of the details and the way that everything was so intricately woven together made up for this non-traditional writing style. I was annoyed by some of the flashbacks especially when they seemed unrelated to what had just been happening, but in almost every case the back story proved valuable. Also, Mandel writes about the things I’ve worried about with the end of civilization as we know it: living without glasses (my biggest fear), surviving after essential medications aren’t available, and trying to navigate streets full of abandoned cars in a wheelchair.
This is a story about real people dealing with the real struggles of life without electricity, cars, and telephones. At times, especially in the beginning, I wanted more plot, but then I kind of accepted the ambiguity of the story. I let the characters wash over me. Listening to the audiobook made this a little easier. I really enjoyed all of the characters, even the Prophet, the quasi-bad guy. The rich details made them all endearing. I was a little surprised when the book was over. I wanted more. More information, more developments between the characters, and more knowledge of the world 20 years after the collapse and beyond.
My Rating: 4 stars
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This book was read for The Deliberate Reader online book club.