Sunday 1 March 2015
#CBR7 Book 24 : "Station Eleven" by Emily St. John Mandel
Rating: 5 stars
Arthur Leander, ageing movie-star, dies of a heart attack on stage at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto. On stage is eight-year-old Kristen Raymonde, witnessing the death of a man who had been nothing but kind to her. Jeevan Chaudhary, former paparazzo photographer and entertainment journalist, now an EMT in training, jumps up on stage and tries to save Arthur's life with CPR. Later that evening, travelling home in the snow, he receives a phone call from a friend, working in the ER. There is a flu spreading, terrifyingly quickly, most likely turning into an epidemic. Warned by his doctor friend, Jeevan buys up all the supplies he can, barricading himself with his wheelchair-bound brother to wait out the disease.
The flu turns into a pandemic, killing indiscriminately, all over the world. Fifteen years later, Kristen Raymonde is the lead actress in the Travelling Symphony, a small acting and orchestra troupe travelling through the scattered settlements in the Great Lakes region of North America. The group performs Shakespeare plays and classical music for the survivors they come across. Written on the head Caravan, and tattooed on Kristen's arm are the words "Because survival is insufficient". Among Kristen's most precious possessions are two issues of a comic book, Station Eleven, which Arthur Leander gave her shortly before he died. She's also become somewhat obsessed with his life, collecting every article, gossip column and newspaper story in a scrap book, whenever she comes across a new one in old papers and magazines. Wherever they travel, she looks for more issues of the comic, and asks new people if they've ever heard of it.
When they come to the little settlement of St. Deborah on the Water, where they two years previous left Kristen's pregnant best friend and her husband, they discover that the place has changed drastically and that their friends, along with many others, are no longer there. The graveyard is full of grave markers for those who dared to leave, and the town is controlled by a Prophet, quoting the Bible and claiming he has the answers about why the flu struck in the first place.
After the first section, which focuses on the night when Arthur died and the flu broke out, the book alternates between "Year Fifteen", where we follow Kristen, her friends in the Travelling Symphony and their encounters with the Prophet, and the past, showing us episodes of Arthur Leander's life, how he met his first wife Miranda, whose artistic life's work was writing and illustrating Station Eleven, his second wife, Elizabeth, who bore him a son, his long friendship with his lawyer, Clark Thompson. Arthur Leander is the focal point, most of the prominent characters we meet in the story are in some way or other connected to him.
Station Eleven is a science fiction novel of sorts, as well as a dystopian novel set in a post-apocalyptic near future. In many ways, the small community of people travelling together, occasionally coming across scattered settlements, reminded me of The Walking Dead. My friend, when I talked to her about it, said that it sounded a bit like the story in the game The Last of Us and a bit like The Road by Cormac McCarthy. With regards to The Walking Dead, I've never read the comics, but I watched nearly three and a half seasons before it just got too bleak and depressing for me. Reading the blurb for The Road and watching the trailer for the film convinced me that there was no way in hell I was ever going to subject myself to reading and/or watching that. I didn't really think that I wanted to read Station Eleven either, worried about the post-apocalyptic thing, but with after several Cannonballers whose opinions I trust reading and loving it, I added it to my TBR list. Then it was announced as the first book in the CBR book club and I no longer had any choice but to read it. Once I decided to read it for myself, I stopped reading reviews, not wanting to be spoiled.
Even having read some very positive reviews, I didn't really know what to expect from the book. It's been a week since I finished it, and I am still having trouble putting into words how it affected me and what I liked so much about it. It took me about three days just to decide what rating to give the book, as there are things I wasn't super thrilled with, either. Yet it's been in my thoughts every day since I finished it, not just because I had this review hanging over me. At first, I was pretty sure that while it was a well-written and very intriguing book, I was unlikely to ever want to re-read it. Now I'm pretty sure that nothing could be further from the truth. I think I'm going to have to re-read it, having taken the full journey with the characters, just to discover new and wonderful things in the story.
There isn't really a protagonist in this book, but the sections I liked the most, were the ones that focused on either Kristen, or Arthur's first wife, Miranda. As is so often the case, with fictional works within fiction, I desperately wanted to read Station Eleven, not to mention see the artwork, that is so lovingly described several places in the book. I'm sure it comes as no surprise to anyone, considering it's also the title of the novel, that the comic book comes to act as a sort of metaphor for the world in which the surviving characters live. I also really liked reading how the people at the airport survived and formed their own little settlement. The bits I liked the least were all the ones concerning the Prophet. He creeped me out a lot (as I'm sure he was supposed to) and while it was eventually revealed who he was, I didn't really care.
I loved that while this book is about a tiny percentage of humanity surviving a pandemic, the focus isn't on the chaotic years directly following the catastrophic event. After fifteen years, there are new settlements. The survivors make new connections, form new bonds and there is always room for art, beauty, human kindness and compassion. While there is still the occasional violent event, this isn't a bleak, depressing book. The book ends on a note of hope and optimism, for which I was very grateful. I suspect that this is going to end up being one of my favourite books of the year, unless I am tremendously lucky with the rest of my reading choices.
Crossposted on Cannonball Read.