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Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Review of "Station Eleven" by Emily St. John Mandel

4 Stars
Strange as it may sound, I loved this post-apocalyptic novel.  I understand why it won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction and was longlisted for the National Book Award.  It is currently on the longlist for Canada Reads 2016 and the 2016 Dublin Literary Award.

The novel begins in the present at a theatre in Toronto.  Arthur Leander, the lead actor, has a fatal heart attack during a performance of King Lear.  Shortly thereafter, a lethal flu pandemic spreads, kills almost all of the world’s population, and causes a collapse of civilization.  We learn about the fate of three survivors over the next twenty years.   Kirsten Raymonde, a child actor befriended by Arthur, ends up as part of the Traveling Symphony, a troupe of musicians and actors who travel around and entertain the people living in isolated settlements with concerts and theatrical performances.  We also follow Clark, Arthur’s best friend, and Jeevan, the paramedic-in-training who performed CPR on Arthur in the theatre.

The story moves back and forth through time and interweaves characters’ lives.  We have flashbacks to Arthur’s life – the progression of his acting career and his three marriages.  Though the focus is on Year 20, some events in the lives of Kirsten, Clark and Jeevan during the 20 years after the pandemic are also highlighted. 

The book is a mystery of sorts in that there are a number of questions to which the reader wants answers:  Who is the Prophet that the Traveling Symphony encounters and why does he have a dog with the same name as the dog in Kirsten’s prized comic books?  What is the meaning of the tattoo on Kirsten’s wrist?  What is the Museum of Civilization?    

The motto of the Traveling Symphony is “survival is insufficient” and that line of text indicates the theme of the novel which examines the importance of art and culture.  The author suggests that it is culture, whether a symphony, a Shakespearean play, a museum of artifacts, or a comic book, which binds us together and makes us human.  Art reminds us of our humanity. 

The book is not as bleak as one would expect a post-apocalyptic narrative to be.  It does not focus on the immediate aftermath of the global disaster, but on the new world that emerges after a few years.  As a result, the focus is not on the daily struggles for the basic necessities of life.  That is not to say that the world is a utopia.  There are repeated references to the savagery of the early years; Kirsten, for example, has chosen to block out the horrors of Year One from her memory.  There are still dangers; the Traveling Symphony takes precautions to be safe on the roads and avoids areas with which they are not familiar.  Nonetheless, the prevailing atmosphere is one of hope. 

The interconnectedness of characters is emphasized.  Clark, Jeevan, and Kirsten all had contact with Arthur to various degrees, but the actor proves to have connections with other survivors as well.  Events bring together some of these people who knew Arthur, yet the reader is not left feeling that there are too many coincidences.  Events unfold in a credible way, “pieces of a pattern drifting closer together.”  And these many characters are fully developed, round characters with clearly identifiable traits and emotional depth. 

One of the other messages of the book seems to be that we should appreciate the beauty around us.  Clark, for instance, wonders, “Why, in his life of frequent travel, had he never recognized the beauty of flight?”  The word beauty is used over a dozen times.  Kirsten thinks about “the moments of transcendent beauty and joy” the troupe achieves and realizes that there is even beauty in the abandoned cities through which they travel:  “In the morning light there was beauty in the decrepitude.” 

The use of the comic book entitled Station Eleven is a nice touch.  Kirsten’s prized possession is two issues of a comic book which features Captain Eleven, a physicist who lives on a space station the size of the moon.  He and a few hundred rebels commandeered the station and managed to escape Earth after aliens enslaved the planet’s population.  Unfortunately, the station’s artificial sky was damaged so Station Eleven’s surface never experiences full daylight.  The inhabitants live on a series of islands or in the Undersea, an interlinked network of fallout shelters under the station’s oceans.  Some of the inhabitants “long only to go home.”  Obviously, the situation on Station Eleven mirrors the situation on earth.

I highly recommend this book.  It does not have the drama of most post-apocalyptic novels.  Its tone could best be described as restrained, but it asks the reader to give some thought to both life as it currently exists and life as it could be after a world-wide disaster.