7.22.2014

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven
The events of Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven drift back and forth in time, some times to years before the Georgian Flu wiped out almost everyone to years later. A handful of narrators tell their stories, linked to each other through an actor who died the day before the flu arrived. They meet and part, sometimes discovering their link to each other, sometimes not. As this contemplative novel spins along, characters mediate on what they've lost, but Station Eleven isn't a depressing novel. One character has a phrase from a Star Trek episode tattooed on her arm: Survival is insufficient. This is the other link between the characters, before and after the flu. The characters before the flu are just going through the motions; one describes it as sleepwalking through life. The characters after the flu travel and perform Shakespeare's plays and music to bring something more into the lives of the people who are just surviving.

In the opening section of Station Eleven, Jeevan Chaudhary sees an actor he once interviewed and stalked as a paparazzo suffering what appears to be a heart attack during Act IV of King Lear. Arthur Leander dies in spite of Jeevan's efforts. That night, abandoned by his girlfriend, Jeevan gets a call from an old friend who tells him to get out of Toronto. An incredibly virulent influenza has just arrived in the city on a plane from Moscow. It kills within 48 hours. St. John Mandel then jumps us twenty years into the future. Kirsten Raymonde, one of the actresses in that long ago production of Lear is now a member of the Travelling Symphony. Her life as a traveling minstrel is dangerous but, as she asks later, "Where else would I get to play Shakespeare?"

Kirsten is our narrator for most of Station Eleven, but we also meet two of Leander's ex-wives, his longtime best friend, and his son. Through Kirsten's eyes, we get to see what has happened to post-plague Michigan. Some small towns survive. Some are too dangerous to approach. One town, St. Deborah by the Water, has been taken over by a prophet from the south. When the Traveling Symphony disappears, Kirsten has to make her way to the next rendezvous point, the Museum of Civilization in Severn, while being pursued by the prophet and his men.

The transitions can feel jarring. It sometimes takes a sentence or two to re-ground yourself. Fortunately, St. John Mandel is a gift for making all of the parts of her story equally interesting and illuminating. Most books with this much time-jumping and this many narrators run the very real risk of readers forgetting something important or getting bored by one or more of the plot lines. Station Eleven also doesn't smack readers over the head with its message. It's there for you to tease out as we piece together the connections between our narrators, worry over them, and wonder what the future holds for them.

I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 9 September 2014.

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