Welcome to the January/February pick for the Fields & Fantasies book club! Each month or so, in collaboration with my wonderful co-host Diana of Strahbary’s Fields, we’ll pick one book to read and discuss. Today, we’re looking at Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel:
An audacious, darkly glittering novel set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse, Station Eleven tells the spellbinding story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.
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.
Spanning decades, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, this suspenseful, elegiac novel is rife with beauty. As Arthur falls in and out of love, as Jeevan watches the newscasters say their final good-byes, and as Kirsten finds herself caught in the crosshairs of the prophet, we see the strange twists of fate that connect them all. A novel of art, memory, and ambition, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it.
My two cents:
It’s always such a terrific gift when a book surprises you in all the right ways. Such was the case for me with Station Eleven. I’d seen some reviews, I’d seen it on many of the “Best of” lists for 2014, and I’d heard the hype. At the same time, the initial synopses I’d read all focused on a traveling Shakespeare company in a post-apocalyptic world. For whatever reason, I assumed the Shakespearean framework would shape the entire novel, so that we’d follow the company from settlement to settlement, seeing their performances and making some sort of symbolic connection between the classic plays and the new world.
It was really a thrill for me to discover that Station Eleven is so much more. Station Eleven takes a truly frightening tale of a global pandemic that kills off most of humanity, and weaves into it a story about human connection, random meaning, and the elusive nature of relationships.
The Georgia flu wipes out human life on Earth almost instantly. In this age of international travel, we’re all only one contaminated airline passenger away from disaster, and Station Eleven lets the pandemic play out to its awful, inevitable conclusion. The narrative of the novel jumps in time between the outbreak of the pandemic, the path of the Traveling Symphony twenty years later, and the earlier history of Arthur Leander, possibly the last man on Earth to attract attention for his death prior to the catastrophe.
It’s hard to explain just what’s so wonderful about Station Eleven. The plotting is elegant, with connections between characters and events that only become apparent later on. The descriptions of the post-apocalyptic world are chilling, and yet the mixed sense of wonder and boredom that the new generations feel toward old stuff (electronics, phones, and all the other pieces of our technology that twenty years later are dusty museum pieces) is almost funny to read about, with a hint of the bittersweet as well. The writer is able to convey a sense of nostalgia for our own times by showing how little so much of what we have now will matter later on. There’s horror for the death and destruction, as well as an edge of mystery as we try to see just how all the different story threads are intertwined.
Above all, Station Eleven is filled with beautiful writing.
Miranda opened her eyes in time to see the sunrise. A wash of violent color, pink and streaks of brilliant orange, the container ships on the horizon suspended between the blaze of the sky and the water aflame, the seascape bleeding into confused visions of Station Eleven, its extravagant sunsets and its indigo sea. The lights of the fleet fading into morning, the ocean burning into sky.
In little moments, we see the awe-inspiring vision of a world without people and what the death of our civilization might look like. No alien invasion, no nuclear war, no second ice age — just a disease working its deadly way through the entire population of the planet over the course of a few short weeks.
Despite the end of life as we know it, life goes on, and the book seems to emphasize above all the way the people’s lives, woven together, form something that’s greater than just the individual. There’s still hope and beauty, and those who understand that are the ones who manage to keep hold of an idea of a future that means something. Station Eleven is sad and gorgeous and, oddly, not depressing. There’s a strange sense of nobility and purpose folded into the survivors’ determination to keep going, to remember, and to grow again.
If you like your post-apocalyptic novels full of explosions, zombies, and mayhem, this may not be the book for you. But if you appreciate a more thoughtful approach to matters of connection and survival and what it means to be human, definitely give Station Eleven a try.
The Fields & Fantasies chat:
I’ll add a link to Diana’s review shortly. Meanwhile — a Q&A between Diana and me.
Warning: SPOILERS from this point forward. Proceed at your own risk!
Lisa: Very good question — was there a reason that the survivors were immune, or did they just not to encounter the virus? I wonder. And we’re left hanging a bit at the end, with the possibility that there could be a return to some of what was lost.
And that wraps it up! Thanks, Diana! It’s a pleasure talking books with you! Let’s do this again next month…
Title: Station Eleven
Author: Emily St. John Mandel
Publication date: September 9, 2014
Length: 333 pages
Genre: Adult fiction
Next for Fields & Fantasies:
Our April book will be Bossypants by Tina Fey.
12 thoughts on “Fields & Fantasies presents… Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel”
Great review. I read it last year and it was one of the best books of 2014 for me. I thought it was so realistic, especially with the ebola scare in the US last year. The media totally overreacted, but a virus could spread like in the book I guess. I thought the museum they created was fascinating. I mean, all the stuff that became obsolete, everything from credit cards to computers to motorcycles. It was really crazy.
I agree, i loved the museum! IPhones and video games, all the stuff that no longer works. What a great concept!
This is a great review, especially like the way the names of your two blogs fit together! Ideal! I’ve been aware of this book since it started appearing in all the “Best of…” lists at the end of last year. It’s not my usual sort of book, but there are some books that sort of “transcend genres” and you end up feeling you must read them – if only to see what all the fuss is about! The Miniaturist was like that for me, and I loved it. I’ve downloaded a sample of this from Amazon (which is usually fatal!) to see if I like it. If I do, I’m blaming you – I’d avoided buying it thus far! (And don’t you think there’s SO much dystopian fiction around right now?!)
There’s absolutely too much dystopian fiction — I used to enjoy it, but it feels so overdone. I wouldn’t call Station Eleven dystopian, though. It really does transcend genre, as you said. Ha, I’ll try to check out The Miniaturist, and if you end up reading Station Eleven, we can blame each other!
Deal! The Miniaturist is the sort of book people who don’t like historical fiction would enjoy, as it’s got a very modern storyline; it’s not all, “Forsooth, my Lord…” etc type-stuff. I notice you’re reading The Boston Girl – also on my TBR, I read The Red Tent years ago but haven’t got round to this yet…be interested to hear what you think!
Just finished The Boston Girl and I’m working on the review! I really enjoyed it. Nothing at all like the Red Tent! It’s really charming, and was a nice switch for me after reading some heavier books lately.
This sounds so intersting. I like stories with many levels intertwining, suggesting things which are not written in the book. It sound slike this is that kind of book 🙂
I strongly suggest giving it a try! There’s just so much going on, and I love how all the various threads connect.
So, I relented, and got Station Eleven. Saw tonight it’s been short/long listed – well in the last 20! – for the Bailey’s Prize for Fiction, which is for female writers.
Oh, I hope you enjoy it! Can’t wait to hear what you think.
I’m hoping to get to it soon, as I’d like to read a few of the longlist of 20 in the 4 weeks before (I presume) the shortlist is announced. I won’t get through them all – I’ve only read one so far – Sarah Waters – but own 3 more. Oddly, no Dept Of Speculation or The Miniaturist on it! The list’s worth a look if you’re interested in quality women writers – which I know you are. You’ll find it if you Google Bailey’s Prize For Fiction Longlist 2015 – and I bet you’ve read way more than me!
Crimeworm, thanks for the suggestion. What a great list of books! The only one I’ve actually read so far is Station Eleven, but I see a few I’ve been wanting to get to (including Sara Waters!).