Book Report: Station Eleven

by Allyson Morin

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Because survival is insufficient!

Kirsten Raymonde will never forget the night Arthur Leander, the famous Hollywood actor, had a heart attack on stage during a production of King Lear. That was the night when a devastating flu pandemic arrived in the city, and within weeks, civilization as we know it came to an end.

Twenty years later, Kirsten moves between the settlements of the altered world with a small troupe of actors and musicians. They call themselves The Traveling Symphony, and they have dedicated themselves to keeping the remnants of art and humanity alive. But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who will threaten the tiny band’s existence. And as the story takes off, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, the strange twist of fate that connects them all will be revealed.

Station Eleven is the fourth novel by Emily St. John Mandel and the first of her novels I have read. Published in 2015, it was both a National Book Award Finalist and a PEN/Faulker Award Finalist, though I was late to the fun, picking it up two weeks ago as it sat unread on my bookshelf since its publication.

It was one of those books I often saw on the end of a display case at my local independent bookstore. I picked it up and read a few pages, saw a description of a traveling symphony performing Shakespeare in the post-apocalyptic near future and carried it around the store before setting back down. Finally, I bought it but did not read it until now.

Well, I half read it. The other half I listened to on audiobook during my car ride commutes. THAT was a gamechanger. No small print, nothing to distract me (besides like, two thousand pound vehicles passing mere feet on either side of me) and nowhere to run.

Station Eleven refers to a comic book of the same name belonging to Kirsten Raymonde. The comic Station Eleven was written long before “apocalypse” was on anyone’s mind, when it was speculated the end times would be due to zombies or divine intervention over a mutated H1N1 flu virus. Station Eleven is a broken planetary spaceship floating through space containing the fleeing members of a war-ravaged earth. Station Eleven was damaged during a trip through a wormhole so the whole surface of the planet is covered in water, dotted with the very peaks of mountains and webbed by connecting bridges above the deep water. The inhabitants are broken into two main groups, Dr. Eleven’s people living on the tops of mountains-turned-islands and the Undersea, the “bad guys” who aren’t really bad guys but homesick people looking to return to their old lives. If you can’t guess, its a metaphor for the freshly born world blooming in the year 25 post-Georgia flu and another common sticking point that connects our cast.

I really loved it. Well-developed characters, well-developed world, Station Eleven felt like a place I could walk into with people I could actually meet. I don’t want to spoil too much, but this was one of those stories that made me want to be a better writer. It injected new enthusiasm into my veins about how a story could be structured and what altered worlds it is possible to create. The story begins, arguably, with the death of the main character, the anchor that tethers our central cast from the world we know. From that point, the individual strings of lives shoot in their unique directions before converging in many satisfying Aha! moments. You know when everything snaps into focus and the little nuggets you learned along the way finally make sense? There is not a wasted plot point, character, or detail in this story. It reads like the very best mystery with the fun of speculative/science fiction and its one I highly recommend.

I did have to return my audiobook copy to the library but I think I’ll keep the book on my shelf.

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If you’ve made it this far, I apologize for my absence this past week. I misplaced my creative motivation and thought it better to step back and work on other projects while I let the creative drive return organically. The truth is, when it’s your job to be creative for a living, sometimes the fun of art begins to feel like a joyless gruel. So, in addition to a massive cross stitching project, grueling editing, about fifty drawings, the creative energy needed for my day job, the super secret novel I’m working on, and a couple ambitious lipstick choices, I’ve launched a new book-based website with my good friend Eli called Tandem Books. Super brand new, super fun, sort of empty right now but if you like my babbling you might consider it.

I’ll see you soon.

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