& Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Fiction. Publisher: Knopf

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.
Fiction. Publisher: Knopf

The Book Itself: A pretty, real-life photo of a starry night (sand light pollution) and tents set up in the field. After reading the book, I’m unclear whether this is supposed to be a scene from the book, and if so, which one? But it makes for a pretty, if rather unremarkable book cover, with tie-ins to the story within.

My Review: “One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time-from the actor’s early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theater troupe known as the Traveling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains-this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor’s first wife, his oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony, caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet. Sometimes terrifying, sometimes tender, 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.”

A gorgeously written book. And not one that necessarily relies on flowery description. While the whole Georgia Flu end-of-the-world thing lends its own degree of tension, some of the most impactful, heartbreaking moments were very human, day-to-day occurrences. My personal favorite:

“But the first man who walked in under low gray skies seemed less dangerous than stunned. He was dirty, of indeterminate age, dressed in layers of clothes, and he hadn’t shaved in a long time…
‘I was in the hotel,’ he said finally. ‘I followed your footprints in the snow.’ There were tears on his face.
‘Okay,’ someone said, ‘but why are you crying?’
‘I’d thought I was the only one,’ he said.”

UGH. Right in the gut.

There are a lot of characters to be tracked in this book. Their storylines intertwine very well, but at times I was left desiring a little more from a character’s background, or a summarization of their fate. Most of them can be traced back to the night before the Georgia Flu really took off running. A famous actor dies onstage, the man training to be an EMT jumps up to save him, the actor’s first, eccentric wife, the young girl playing a part in the play during the time of its interruption…all of them play integral parts in the novel. They touch an object, you can be sure that object will come back later, and with feeling.

Kirsten – the young girl grown up to be traveling actor in a troupe bent on entertaining colonies and towns sprung up in the aftermath of the Flu – is perhaps the fuzziest. What happens between her crying backstage as a child, and her trudging along after a dusty caravan is mainly never touched. You are to understand that it is too horrific to retell, even for her to recall. On the one hand, in a story that seems to try to wrap up all loose ends, more or less, this seems like a rather large end to not tie. On the other, it seems very appropriate: the Georgia Flu is horrific. It should be too painful to go through again, even in memory. As a curious reader, I’m left going “but what happened?!” As a person thinking about what I’d do, I’m thinking I’d be curled up in a ball in the corner if I were her. She’s toughing it out better than I would.

The book gets its title from a series of comic books the famous actor’s first ex-wife (Miranda) draws. I loved this aspect of it. First of all, Station Eleven is the floating world-on-a-spaceship that the hero of the comic inhabits after life on his Earth ends. Can you say metaphor? World ending theme aside, there’s isolation, creativity in the face of tragedy, heroism…awesome (says the analysis beat into me by my degree in English literature).

The comics become a wonderful glue that hold certain characters together. And in a poetic  moment, they save one person’s life and end anothers (oooh, intrigue!)

It’s a long ride, and the conclusion was a little softer than I expected. No drawn out showdown, no greater cataclysm (although what bigger cataclysm can you have AFTER the world as you know it has ended?). I thought the information from each character was carefully measured, and carried such a great impact. A great book. Definitely deserves all the hype its been getting.

My Grade: B


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