Monday, 9 November 2015

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Let me try to paint a picture of where I was while reading this book. I read the whole thing while sitting at a nurses' desk in a hospital. (No one was sick - I was working during an exam, which meant that I was there for 12 hours and had plenty of time to read.) So, yeah. Reading a book about a flu pandemic that wipes out 99.9% of humanity in a hospital. It was quiet, with that hospital smell and dampened hush over things.

So, that was creepy.

The other problem with the location is that this is such a damned good book, guys. I kept teetering on the edge of tears, more than once, but tried to hold them back so I wasn't alarming the people around me. This was the big book last year, and I am so pleased that when I read it, it held up.

Of course, there are many ways in which this was a book that was likely to hit my sweet spots. It weaves between three time periods, from before the pandemic, during, and after. The after sections are 18 years after, when the world has settled into new patterns of sparse settlement. I like this kind of intertwined storytelling when it's well done.

It's also about theatre, so there's that. Before the pandemic, we follow a movie star turned King Lear onstage. Long after, we accompany a travelling troupe of actors and musicians as they do a circuit near the Great Lakes. One woman was a little girl in the production of Lear, and has survived and grown up in this new world, remembering little of the old.

I just wrote a review for Sophie's World in which I took to task for trying to show how people are simultaneously alone and never alone with an anvil and no subtlety. Just saying that isn't enough. What that book did badly, this book did beautifully. It captures both the omnipresence of isolation and the tenacity of community in dozens of ways, showing connections lost and found, broken and forged. It's never overt, but it sings through this entire story, and that was frequently what brought me close to tears.

I don't want to spoil this book. It's wonderfully, beautifully woven, like music, like a stage play. A stage play where things look like they'll never come together and then they do. The connections are many, yet never overdone. At least once, when I put the pieces together myself, there was a stunned pause in my brain as it worked to figure out the implications.

This is a book where Mandel manages to make you nostalgic for things that are so familiar, you have ceased thinking about them. There are lists, as those who were adults when the world went dark, recall what they miss, and it creates this strange sense as the reader can't help but feel these aspects all around them.

This was just a pleasure to read, from beginning to end. The setting, the interweaving of time periods and characters, those lovely moments of discovery, and awareness of being alone in a world where almost everyone who ever lived has died. The idea that that loneliness never goes away. But neither do connections.

This wounded world, and the small revelation at the end, they captured my imagination, and I strongly recommend this book to just about everyone. I expect to see it reach late rounds of my upcoming Dust Cover Dust-Up.


  1. I thought this looked like a really interesting premise when I first saw its description online a few days ago; I love books about the theater (especially when it touches on Shakespeare), and while I do like the post-apocalyptic genre SOMETIMES (as long as it's not too bleak and has some element of hope and survival), I think it's been done to death (no pun intended) lately, with all the usual cliches and stereotypical characters and storylines; but this one sounds like a nice refreshing twist, combining elements of the traveling theater troupe with hopeful survival elements-- and judging by your glowing review of it, it looks like it lives up to its premise. Can't wait to check it out! Thanks for the insightful review!

    1. The theatre in this one is all Shakespeare! And it is not too bleak. There are some difficult sections, but this is not hopelessness.

      I hope you enjoy it!