Thursday, September 18, 2014

Book Review: "Station Eleven" by Emily St. John Mandel

"Hell is the absence of people you long for."

Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven is a big, ambitious, emotional, gorgeously written book that I absolutely fell in love with.

Arthur Leander is a famous actor nearing the twilight of his career. His life is full of unsuccessful emotional attachments, yet he is longing for simplicity, and a better relationship with his young son from a previous marriage. One night, during a stage production of King Lear in Canada, Arthur suffers a heart attack on stage and collapses. Kirsten Raymonde, an eight-year-old actress in the play, watches as Jeevan Chaudhary, a former paparazzi photographer and entertainment reporter-turned-aspiring paramedic, rushes up onstage to give Arthur CPR.

Strangely, hours after this incident, as Jeevan walks home, the entire world is overtaken by a massive flu pandemic, which spreads quickly. Those who do not become sick immediately react in panic—hospitals are flooded, roads are clogged with people trying to escape to a safer place, airlines stop flying. Jeevan holes himself up in his brother's apartment, and the two watch television stations cease broadcasting, the internet cease operating, and electricity die, and the subsequent rioting and looting that ensues.

Fifteen years after the pandemic, Kirsten is an actress with The Traveling Symphony, a group of musicians and actors who travel a path between different settlements, performing music and Shakespearean plays. Kirsten's life has been shaped by the violence and loss she has encountered along their travels, as well as the memories she has of life before the world changed. She is unprepared for how a random encounter in a small town with someone who calls himself "The Prophet" will affect her—and alter the course of her journey.

Station Eleven shifts perspectives and moves back and forth through time. We follow Arthur as his star rises and he blunders his way through relationship after relationship; Arthur's first wife, Miranda, who reinvents her life after her marriage collapses, and whose artistic talent has a reach far beyond her imagination; Jeevan, as he moves from career to career, continually tracking and encountering Arthur and Miranda; Clark, Arthur's childhood friend, who serves as a back-seat observer to the events and people who have moved through Arthur's life; and Kirsten, as she remembers glimpses of life before, and moves through a life different than anything she could have fathomed. Some have said the shifting narration and time makes the book seemed disjointed, but I loved how each person's story contributed to the rich tapestry of this book.

This is a book about love, loss, friendship, connection, and the power of memory. It's bleak and beautiful, heartfelt and heartbreaking, and it seriously made me think about whether I would be able to survive in a world like this, and the things I'd miss most. Yes, this is a book about the end of the world as people knew it, but there are no zombies or rebellions or shadow governments or anything like that. I told someone recently that I often read from a place of emotion, and that if a book makes me feel, I like it more than books that don't. While Station Eleven definitely provoked emotions and feelings, the writing is so utterly captivating as well. Easily one of the best books I've read this year.

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