Book Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

20170404One 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.(synopsis from Goodreads)

Rating:10/10

Overall Impression: One of the best books I’ve read in some time, and definitely one of the best post-apocalyptic books I’ve ever read.

Recommended For: Fans of post-apocalyptic literature and just fiction in general. Also fans of character-driven stories.

Emily St. John Mandel’s post-apocalyptic tale is one of the most human of its genre, focusing more on the lives of its characters before and after the disease that decimated the Earth’s population, rather than the actual event itself. Mandel takes us on a journey that demonstrates the human ability to love, hate, forgive, and ultimately, endure in an unforgiving world.

This story isn’t plot driven, like so many other books that examine this same subject, but rather character-driven. This, in my opinion, can be even more all-consuming than a fast-paced plot as long as the characters are written well. Station Eleven is an example of that kind of book.

I had pretty much had my fill of post-apocalyptic books, and pretty much won’t read them anymore unless they are recommended to me. One of my grad school instructors raved about this book, so I decided to give it try, and I’m so happy I did. The take on the post-apocalyptic genre was refreshing, mainly because it focuses more on the aftermath of the event (in this case a disease) as well giving us enough information into the past lives of some of these characters that makes us feel the underlying fear that many of us carry—this could be us one day.

Much like what World War Z did with zombies, Station Eleven is a book that focuses on the consequences of the decisions that were made when the event actually happens. There is barely even a description of what occurs, which is fine since it’s a flu like virus that spreads and that’s all you really  need to know, and because of this, Mandel is able to focus on the psychological consequences for its survivors, and how this affects the type of societal structures that are formed.

I also have to say that the use of the comic book “Station Eleven” was very well done. “Station Eleven” is the last comic book that Kirsten receives from the ageing actor who dies in the beginning of the book. Kirsten has managed to keep this comic through all of the trials she has faced growing up in this post-apocalyptic and often dangerous world, and she considers it her most prized possession.Throughout the narrative, sections are interspersed about the woman who wrote the comic and her life while she wrote it, thus giving us a reason to feel a connection to this work along with Kirsten. Granted, it is for different reasons that we end up feeling this connection, but the connection is made nonetheless and that is more than most books do. So many times, we will read about characters who have an object they feel highly attached to, but something is lost when we aren’t able to feel the same connection. In the case of Station Eleven, both the reader and the character feel a connection to this central object which gives this book a whole layer that other books lack. Am I saying that this should occur with every coveted object that a character has, no. I’m just saying that it is interesting to see it done, and see it done so well.

This is a stunning accomplishment that is a must-read for any literary fiction or post-apocalyptic fiction fan. I’m looking forward to reading more work from Emily St. John Mandel.

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