Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
This book was a personal purchase.
(Description nicked from B&N.com.)
“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.”
This book is one that has been sitting on my Nook almost since it came out. I’ve been meaning to read it, and I just never got around to it until now. In the year or so since it has been published, I’ve seen tons of praise for it, and I’ve even seen it used in some college courses at the campus where I work. Now that I’ve finally read it, I can say that this book will surprise you in all of the best ways.
When I started the novel, I was under the impression that most of the book would take place in the future America where the Traveling Symphony plies its trade. But that’s not correct; rather, the novel interweaves times and places and people in a fluid fashion that seems like it shouldn’t work, but it does. I ended up getting extremely invested in what was going on with the characters and enjoying being able to watch as the connections between them ebbed and flowed.
In the description above, the publisher calls this a novel that explores “art, memory, and ambition”, as well as concepts like fame and beauty. This is all true, but to me, the real takeaway was exemplified in a Star Trek: Voyager quote that’s painted on the lead wagon of the Traveling Symphony: “Because survival is insufficient.” As I read this book, I began to think about what I and those around me would cling to if we were in a similar situation. Once survival is uncertain, what do you do to survive, not only in body but in spirit? And once that survival is gained (however transitory), what is important enough for you to nurture in yourself? For some it is music, for some it is theater, for some it is religion, but everybody has something that sustains them beyond mere food and shelter.
Parts of this book are truly touching, and parts are quietly horrifying, and parts are inspiring. I can see why this book has garnered so much praise, as it truly does deserve it. This is going to be listed as one of my best reads of 2015, and I’m only sorry that it took me so long to read it.