Sunday, October 19, 2014

Station Eleven (by Emily St. John Mandel)

This is one of those buzzy books that I've been hearing about here and there, a post-apocalyptic novel focusing on a traveling band of Shakespearean actors and musicians 20 years after a pandemic flu wipes out 99% of humanity. There's a new generation growing up who have never seen a world with air travel, electricity, or the internet.

The novel opens on an actor who dies of a heart attack (during a performance of King Lear) the same night the pandemic hits North America; many of the characters' lives intersect with his, and there are flashbacks and flash-fowards that cover the history of the characters, the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, and 20 years later. There's a dark period in the middle that, it is implied, was basically Cormac McCarthy's The Road and gave everyone PTSD which, if you've read The Road, is understandable.

The title refers to a series of comic books about Dr. Eleven, who lives on some type of planetoid space station and who has faced a similar apocalyptic event, so the ironic parallels abound, even though I never quite understood the concept of Station Eleven as well as I'd have liked. In flashbacks, we learn who created these and why.

I enjoyed many things about this novel: the lovely prose, the originality of the premise, the shifts in time, the strong female characters, and the meditations on modernity, on memory, on a world we take for granted. I also didn't mind all the intersections and coincidences; this was part of the enjoyment for me. I did have some quibbles: I wanted to understand Station Eleven better, I wanted a little more detail about why and how the Traveling Symphony was traveling, and I wanted a bit more characterizations of the members (we only learn about a handful). In fact, a number of the storylines and characters felt like I could easily have read twice as much about them. But that feels like a compliment to Mandel's storytelling more than a flaw.

Overall I enjoyed it and would recommend it.

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