Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Mini book review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

It must say something about my current opinion about the state of the world that I seem to only read fantasy and dystopian fiction anymore: I'm either looking for an escape or am trying to plan ahead to face what's coming.  Case in point: Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, a bleak and yet somehow lyrical novel about what happens when 99% of the world population is brought down by the flu.

It's grim - although it isn't supernatural a la The Stand - as the few remaining people try to survive and rebuild their lives.  This flu (no reason for it given) was particularly fast-acting, decimating the planet in about two weeks.  The survivors, who never learned why they were immune when so many weren't, were scattered far and wide.  Some simply hunkered down where they were, like the passengers stranded in airport, and rebuilt from there, hunting deer, planting crops, establishing museums of what once was.  Some wandered for the first year before settling down in small settlement; those settlements were often vulnerable and people came and went.  Others banded together and kept wandering, like the Traveling Symphony, a ragtag group of actors and musicians who caravan along, stopping at various settlements to bring a little bit of art and beauty to whomever is living there.

Station Eleven does not have a straight shot narrative (which is not my favorite).  The main character is presumably Kirsten, a member of the Traveling Symphony, and the book follows what happens to her and her friends.  But Mandel bounces around in time, visiting Arthur Leander, an actor who meets Kirsten when she is a child, and then continuing with Arthur's life with his many wives, even though he doesn't survive the flu-pocalypse.  Arthur's life intersected with many other lives, and those intersections are touched upon, interweaving as the book shows life both before and after the flu pandemic.  Some parts are brutal and violent, some are gentle, wistful, hopeful, beautiful.  Although Station Eleven is about an apocalypse, it is ultimately hopeful.

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