Once again, I find myself having to catch up with the rest of the universe, finally picking up Station Eleven (2014) by Emily St. John Mandel after its been reviewed, discussed and bookclubed by the Cannonball crew more times than I can remember. I guess it’s not surprising that I first heard of Station Eleven on Cannonball. And despite some doubts and disinterest when I initially heard it was a dystopian story about a traveling Shakespeare Company, which sounded weird, it was the positive Cannonball reviews that convinced me to read it.
Because I read this one quite awhile ago and am having problems summing up this book in a couple of sentences, I will rely on Amazon:
Kirsten Raymonde will never forget the night Arthur Leander, the famous Hollywood actor, had a heart attack on stage during a production of King Lear. That was the night when a devastating flu pandemic arrived in the city, and within weeks, civilization as we know it came to an end.
Twenty years later, Kirsten moves between the settlements of the altered world with a small troupe of actors and musicians. They call themselves The Traveling Symphony, and they have dedicated themselves to keeping the remnants of art and humanity alive. But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who will threaten the tiny band’s existence. And as the story takes off, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, the strange twist of fate that connects them all will be revealed.
When I finished this book, I was tempted to go back and search out the reviews and discussions I had missed in order to get a better idea of what I had just read. But I resisted because I wanted to digest this novel on my own before having someone explain it to me. Minor spoilers follow for the two of you who haven’t read Station Eleven yet.
Station Eleven was very well written and very interesting to read. The characters were real, sympathetic, and relatable. Despite the plethora of dystopian literature falling off bookshelves these days, Station Eleven is original and much more complex than a simple disaster book. It feels like a book where the relationships are more important than the survival aspect, which is unusual. Also, St. John Mandel has a remarkable understanding of the pre-epidemic world and the nuances and influences that push it.
However, when I finished, I was a surprised that there was not more cohesion between the various characters. I assumed these disparate story lines would come together, the characters would meet, and they would understand their connection. This is not a complaint. Not tying everything up into a tidy bow is more realistic. It was simply unexpected and made me think more about what I had just read.
The most memorable relationship in this story for me was between Arthur and his second wife, Miranda. Miranda’s relationship with her artist boyfriend, subsequent marriage to Arthur and her discomfort of Hollywood, followed by her devastating divorce felt very real.. Arthur obviously loves her but acts callously human at the same time. Yet, what does Arthur and Miranda have to do with the epidemic? Sure, all of the other characters are tied in to Arthur in some way, but both Miranda and Arthur are dead by the time the fight for survival really begins. Arthur is perhaps one of the last humans to be untouched by the plague, to leave the world in blissful ignorance of what was coming. Perhaps Mandel was using him as a tool to highlight the differences between pre- and post-epidemic worlds.
Although I’ve read way too many dystopian novels these days, and they just keep coming, I really enjoyed Station Eleven. Thoughtful and well written, I can see why it’s been so popular. “Survival is insufficient.”
Find the rest of my reviews here.