Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Genre: Adult Dystopian/Literary Fiction
Release date: September 9 2014
Source: eARC from publisher via Edelweiss
The nitty-gritty: A luminous, end-of-the-world story full of hope, multiple elements and characters that are skillfully knit together, all written in beautifully spare prose and evocative imagery.
But first there’s this moment, this lamp-lit room: Miranda sits on the floor beside Elizabeth, whose breath is heavy with wine, and she leans back until she feels the reassuring solidity of this door frame against her spine. Elizabeth, who is crying a little, bites her lip and together they look at the sketches and paintings pinned to every wall. The dog stands at attention and stares at the window, where just now a moth brushed up against the glass, and for a moment everything is still. Station Eleven is all around them.
I could save you all some time and simply say “Read this book!” But I suspect most people need some convincing when it comes to deciding to invest your scant free time in reading a particular book. This may turn out to be my favorite book of the year, although we still have three-and-a-half months to go. However, I feel certain that Station Eleven will always be a book that I will fervently recommend, even years from now. It’s that good. I’m going to have to compare my reading experience to other wonderful books like Life of Pi, The Secret History, Bel Canto, or The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. I’m sure most of you are familiar with that feeling, when you finish the last page of a book and time stops. When you’re afraid to breathe or you might break the spell. When you want to run out into the streets and tell anyone who might listen that this is the book they should read next.
Everything came together for me, and I’m going to attempt to tell you why. If you like linear stories, then you may have some trouble with this book, because the story loops around from the past to the present and back again, and at first it isn’t easy to see how the author could possibly make sense of all her separate vignettes. But make sense she does, and it doesn’t take long before you begin to realize just how brilliant this story is.
We begin in the past—or rather, the moment where everything starts to fall apart. On stage at the Winter Garden Theatre in Toronto, famous actor Arthur Leander is performing King Lear. In the middle of a speech, he drops dead of a heart attack. But this horrible event is only the beginning of what’s to come: a pandemic called the Georgia Flu is about to wipe out 99 percent of the world’s population, and before the week is out, millions have succumbed to this terrible virus.
The survivors, a handful of people who are either immune to the disease or just lucky, begin their tentative steps into a new life, trying to survive in a world that gradually loses everything familiar: electricity, the internet, airplanes, gasoline. How these characters are related is the driving force that propels the story forward. Twenty years after the flu devastates the human population, a travelling band of performers sets out to find the lost members of their troupe, not knowing that their journey will end in a new place with familiar faces. And tying all these people together is a hand-drawn comic called Station Eleven, a comic that eerily mirrors the future.
There are so many wonderful pieces to this complex story, and I certainly don’t want to spoil anything for you. But I will say that this is a much different apocalyptic story that I thought it would be. You won’t find any vampires, or zombies, or cannibals in Station Eleven. The survivors face real dangers: running out of food and water or getting caught out in the elements. One story thread, however, follows a mysterious and sinister man simply called “the prophet,” who has coerced a band of innocent people into following his crazy religious beliefs. Our intrepid Traveling Symphony comes upon them at one point in the story, and things get tense for a while.
But most of the book is filled with quiet and introspective moments written in Mandel’s gorgeous and simple prose, moments that make you feel sad, or grateful, or remind you that the world is indeed full of wonder. I came to care about these characters deeply, even those who appear to only have bit parts. Kirsten, who was only eight when the flu hit, has mostly grown up in a world without technology. She only remembers certain things about “before,” and only in flashes. Kirsten has carried two comics with her ever since Arthur Leander gave them to her right before he died, comics that were written and drawn by Arthur’s ex-wife Miranda. Mandel uses these comics as a device to bind her characters together, as they are passed from hand to hand. I won’t tell you what happens to them at the end, but it was a wonderful moment.
Many of the characters were older than Kirsten when the flu struck, and feel a lingering sadness towards the things they don’t have any more: movies, oranges, television, and especially, electricity. One of my favorite story lines is that of Clark, Arthur’s boyhood friend, who was stranded in an airport when the world stopped. Clark eventually creates the Museum of Civilization, where he collects old artifacts to preserve for the future: credit cards, iPhones, and more. I loved the feeling of nostalgia that the Museum evoked. The characters in this story have lost so much, and there are many heartbreaking scenes that will linger long after you’ve finished reading the book. But there is also a glimmer of hope at the end, and the feeling that all is not lost.
I could go on and on, but I’d rather you simply read Station Eleven for yourself. Emily St. John Mandel has written something very special. She weaves a story where both characters and objects keep reappearing in completely unexpected places, and she never seems to lose track of her many story threads. Station Eleven is heart-wrenchingly beautiful and sad at the same time, and I feel very lucky to have stumbled upon it.
Many thanks to Knopf for supplying a review copy. The above quote was taken from an uncorrected proof, and may differ in the final version of the book.
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