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Station Eleven

Station Eleven - Emily St. John Mandel Without music, life would be a mistake

One of my favorite bookstores in the world is Provincetown Books, a tiny space in the center of town, right next to Adams Pharmacy. The owner’s selection is very much my taste, and she always seems to have just what I’m looking for at the moment. This summer, I was on a mission to fill out a few more CBR10Bingo squares, and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven was at the top of my list. Of course she had it in stock.

As soon as I laid the book on the counter, she looked up at me and said, “You’re going to love this.” I laughed and told her I hadn’t even heard of it until this spring, and then all of a sudden, I was seeing it everywhere. Obviously, if I’d joined CBR before this year, I would have seen all of the reviews here, since it’s on the “So Popular” list. I haven’t read any of those reviews yet, since I didn’t want to be influenced by them before I’d written my own, but I suspect I’m not alone in loving this book.

Station Eleven begins in a Toronto theater the night Arthur Leander dies of a heart attack while performing King Lear. Outside, another end is coming: an unstoppable flu pandemic has just begun to eradicate most of the world’s population. From there, the story jumps back and forth in time: the early hours and immediate aftermath of the pandemic through the eyes of Javeed, the EMT who jumped onstage to try to save Arthur; back through Arthur’s childhood, early career, and three failed marriages; ahead twenty years to follow the Traveling Symphony, a group of musicians and actors that includes Kirsten, a child actor in that long ago production of King Lear. The new world is stark, primitive, decaying, dangerous, and yet life still goes on.

No brief summary of this book can do it justice. I suspect that’s why I wasn’t interested the first time I picked up a copy and read the back cover blurb. It sounds like a hodgepodge of quirk, and that’s a big turnoff for me. Luckily, CBR gave me the extra push I needed, because this book is so much more. It’s beautifully written and compulsively readable, ranking right up there with the best speculative fiction. Mandel’s near-future dystopia is entirely plausible, reading like an elegy to our modern world and all we take for granted. For those who remain, life certainly isn’t easy, but the Traveling Symphony and others of kindred spirit refuse to give in to despair. They remember what they had but also treasure what they still have and hope for better days ahead.

Because survival is insufficient.

(This review was originally posted as part of Cannonball Read 10: Sticking It to Cancer, One Book at a Time.)