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Friday, December 19, 2014

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Alfred A. Knopf, 333 pages, $24.95

“Station Eleven” is a superb dystopian novel, because it is first and foremost about people, not special effects. After a flu epidemic wipes out 99 percent of the world’s population within an astoundingly short period of time, the survivors must do hard and sometimes unspeakable things to survive. But this is not a book with graphic horrors. It is about psychological toughness, optimism, and the will to survive and endure.

The book travels between events before the epidemic and going forward until twenty years after “the collapse.” There are two central characters: actor Arthur Leander, who dies within the first few pages of a heart attack while he is on stage, and child actor Kirsten Raymonde, who had a bit part in the same stage production.

In a series of flashbacks, Arthur’s life is presented as a voyage between wives. As his renown grows, he becomes unmoored and trades his wives in with regularity. Has he ever cared about anyone, including the son he and his second wife produced? Arthur’s death occurs on the eve of the viral cataclysm. 

Kirsten is seven or eight years old at the time of the play. When we next see her it is twenty years after the epidemic. She is now a member of a traveling acting and musical troupe. By horse and wagon the thirty or so people in the troupe travel a circuit in the Midwest, presenting entertainment for the sparsely populated settlements in the area. Although the settlements are fairly stable and non-threatening, there are still dangers from brigands and beasts wandering the area.

As the players enter one familiar town after a two-year absence, they look forward to reuniting with two former members they had left behind when their child was about to be born. Instead of their friends, they find a much sparser population and a reticence among the people who are there. Instead of a mayor, the town is ruled by a mysterious “prophet.” The troupe cannot leave town fast enough.

Back on the road the players begin to suddenly and quietly disappear. Is it the prophet? Or something more sinister or supernatural?

Emily St. John Mandel offers an interesting and thrilling book. Kirsten is a grown-up version of Katniss Everdeen — she’s smart and can hunt and kill — but she’s also close to the little girl she used to be. Arthur had given her a comic book, also named Station Eleven, on that last night, and she has treasured it as a connection to a world she barely remembers and as a imaginative depiction of other survivors in a fantasy world.

Mandel traces the fine threads of connection between the past and the present. She provides knowledge that only we readers will ever know about who some of the present characters really are. (In a charming touch, some of the troupe no longer use their birth names but are referred to by their instruments, e.g., Viola.)

Despite the hazards of the new world, there’s a freshness and renewal — in the air, in the night sky, in a sense of possibilities — that slowly had been driven out of the technology-obsessed world that fell that night twenty years ago.

Mandel has created a book that is wonderful in so many ways. Not without reason, it was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award in fiction. She didn’t win that award, but here is an MBTB star.

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful review. You sold me on this novel in the first paragraph. :-) I am adding this to my list as we speak.