Monday, February 9, 2015

Book Review: Station Eleven

Station Eleven (2014)
Written by Emily St. John Mandel
304 pages
U.S. Publisher: Knopf

A trend that has gone through the literary world like wildfire is the dystopian novel. The young adult crowd has devoured the likes of The Hunger Games and Divergent, but the genre of literary fiction has not been as receptive to it as of late.

And then along comes Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven.

The story begins in a Toronto theater, where an established actor dies while performing King Lear. But the day gets worse as a global pandemic known as the "Georgia Flu" spreads from eastern Europe around the world via air travelers. As the years pass, generations of survivors cope with the "new world" while still trying to sustain some of the "old world" traditions, namely the arts. A traveling symphony performs Shakespearean plays in a parking lot. A stranded air traveler forms a museum of relics from the world pre-flu in an airport lounge. But not everyone makes a benevolent transition to the "new world." A self-proclaimed prophet twists passages from Revelations and leads a terrifying cult following to claim dominion over a town near the Great Lakes.

The book switches between three areas: 1) the real world prior to the flu, 2) the real world post-flu and 3) the fictional world of a comic book called Station Eleven that bridges the two previous areas in interesting but totally plausible ways.

The book's opening is fantastic and the world-building was terrific. My favorite character was Kirsten, one of the members of the Traveling Symphony, so whenever the narrative follows her and the Symphony, the book just soared. It was often in these sections where the author's observations of what the world would be like post-pandemic fascinated me. Where the book had a misstep for me was in its second quarter, when characters like Arthur, the actor destined to die on stage in the opening chapter, take up a significant portion of the plot. That section left me longing to see the Traveling Symphony or Jeevan, the man who tries to save Arthur's life on that stage.

As the second half starts connecting the story threads together, the story got right back in a groove and made for a great read. Scenes involving travelers at an airport allowed St. John Mandel to make some humorous notes about modern air travel, much in the way she made wry observations with the symphony earlier in the book. It also helps that one of the more likable characters, Clark, is the primary character in these sequences.

Shortlisted for the National Book Award last year, the novel successfully melds dystopian speculative sci-fi and serious literary fiction. St. John Mandel, above right, managed to make a Star Trek line ("Survival is insufficient") the main theme of the book. The characters of Station Eleven don't just want to survive, they want to live fulfilling lives and care for each other just like they would pre-flu. As one character puts it, "Hell is the absence of the people you long for." There was a point when I was worried it would veer off and become a pretentious read, but by the three-quarter mark, I knew why this book had been rightfully shortlisted. Grade: 4/5 stars.

The book is currently available in hardcover, audiobook and ebook formats. A paperback version is due Stateside in June.

To see the book's trailer, click here. Below is a Mashable Q&A with the author, but be warned: Spoilers ahead.

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