So many good things had been said about this book so I was excited to read it myself. This book was chosen as the Great Michigan Read for 2015-2016 by the Michigan Humanities Council so there are a lot of events and discussion focused on this book in my area. If you’ve followed this blog for a while you’ll remember how many times I posted about Annie’s Ghosts. Expect the same from this book.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Summary from Goodreads:
One snowy night Arthur Leander, a famous actor, has a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo-turned-EMT, is in the audience and leaps to his aid. A child actress named Kirsten Raymonde watches in horror as Jeevan performs CPR, pumping Arthur’s chest as the curtain drops, but Arthur is dead. That same night, as Jeevan walks home from the theater, a terrible flu begins to spread. Hospitals are flooded and Jeevan and his brother barricade themselves inside an apartment, watching out the window as cars clog the highways, gunshots ring out, and life disintegrates around them.
Fifteen years later, Kirsten is an actress with the Traveling Symphony. Together, this small troupe moves between the settlements of an altered world, performing Shakespeare and music for scattered communities of survivors. Written on their caravan, and tattooed on Kirsten’s arm is a line from Star Trek: “Because survival is insufficient.” But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who digs graves for anyone who dares to leave.
I’ve spoken with people who are put off by this book being ‘dystopian.’ The way they speak about it makes it sound like a lesser genre and one that wasn’t deserving of being chosen by the Humanities Council. I think this book is a perfect choice. It’s a big ‘what if?’ book, a type that has been very popular before (1984, A Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, etc.). Because that ‘what if’ involves a step backward in civilization does not make it a lower book. I find it says even more about humanity. I loved the characters and how they were related to each other. I liked the jumps forward and backward in time. And I really liked Kirsten’s relationships with the other characters. It all worked really well together to make for a book I found hard to put down. When I did put it down, I couldn’t concentrate on anything else.
There was a huge variety of characters and I loved that about the book. Some were rich, poor, smart, uneducated, old, and young. I thought Mendel did a great job of explaining the different life paths that people were led to as a result of the flu. The main characters, Kirsten and Jeevan in particular, were great and I could sympathize with their fears. I found the prophet to be a bit unbelievable, but I think that was the point. I thought it was realistic how Kirsten’s brother died and I’m glad they addressed how people would die in ways that wouldn’t have been an issue in the old world. It seemed very real.
Kirsten is a very likable main character. She bridges those who remember the old world too well and those who didn’t know it at all with her age and limited memory. She has a good amount of mystery to her (who did she kill, what happened during the year she forgot?) but not so much that she’s unlikable. You know enough about her to like her. The friends she had in the symphony were good people and you could see that she would do anything for them and it helped me like her.
It’s hard to say I related to any of the characters directly, but I could see myself in Kirsten and Jeevan. When Jeevan hold himself up in his brother’s apartment, I kept thinking that it was what I would have done. I would have waited for things to calm down before I’d gone outside, I would have waited as long as possible before venturing into the new world. I would have tried to find a community like Kirsten where I got to travel and where I felt needed. Their stories together let me picture what my life could have been like in the world of the book.
I found the descriptions of ransacking to be incredibly beautiful and haunting. Thinking about what would be left in a school and what would be valuable was eerie. Thinking of finding the dead there was strange as well. I would have thought of raiding grocery stores and sporting goods stores, but looting houses and classrooms seem desperate and it was a good way to show how the world had changed.
Okay, major spoiler here so skip to the end of this paragraph to miss it. When Clark showed Kirsten the city with lights on and then nothing came of that, I was upset. I thought that was something too big to gloss over at the end. I think we’re told the symphony is headed that way, but we don’t find out much on top of that. Are you kidding me? I’d be running there ASAP, trying to figure out if they were able to bring the world into the 20th Century. That would be incredible.
The tagline of the entire book is ‘Survival is insufficient.’ Merely making it through the world is not enough, there has to be a way to contribute to it and to remember what there was before. The symphony has a wonderful way of doing this with theatre and music. The importance of what came before is so important in the story. Clark collects mementos of the previous world because he hopes they might once again be needed or that remembering they existed will help somehow. The cities with electricity or bringing back the internet could prove that one day these things are again needed. It’s the same reason we study history. We have to remember what happened before so we can learn from our mistakes and make better decisions the next time. Maybe all we learn about the flu is how to better protect against it before, but remembering all we learned about civilization, technology, and geopolitics is worth remembering and remembering well.
Writer’s Takeaway: Gosh, with a book like this, I’m intimidated to write this section. What did I learn from reading the book? Just that I wish I could write like Mandel. It’s hard to put my finger on what I liked about this one. Part of it was the mystery she kept about the characters and the setting which was appropriate because of the state of the world. The other was her organization and layout of the plot. There was a lot going on and it all came together in the end but to get there, it took a lot of organization and building. Mandel did it beautifully.
I enjoyed this book immensely and recommend it to everyone. Five out of Five stars.
Until next time, write on.