Muse du Jour

My name is Marianne Plumridge. I am an artist of mythic fantasy works and fine art images. I also satisfy my creative muse with sewing, cooking, writing and reading. These are my thoughts and adventures with whichever muse drives me each day. You can find more of my art at www.marianneplumridge.com

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Location: New England, United States

Friday, November 14, 2014

STATION ELEVEN...A Book Review


STATION ELEVEN:
A NOVEL

By Emily St. John Mandel

2014; Alfred A. Knopf; 
Hardcover  
ISBN: 978-0-385-35330-4
333 Pages; USD $24.95

A Book Review by 
Marianne Plumridge - November 2014 



On a snowy winter night in Toronto, a well-loved and celebrated actor dies onstage during his quintessential performance of Shakespeare’s King Lear. A child actress who was close to the actor, witnesses his death while a member of the audience leaps onto the stage to try and save him. As a little-noticed backdrop to this drama, a much greater tragedy begins to unfurl its tendrils all around the world. This single death becomes a catalyst for a number of people, radiating outward in a tangled cause and effect of connectivity. Still touching them decades on into the future, past the ravening clutches of the Georgia Flu which came out of the nether reaches of Russia to kill each of its victims within a few short hours of contact, and into the remnant pockets of civilization that are left.

Jeevan Chaudhary was the man, an EMT, who leapt onto the stage to save a life in vain. During that time, Arthur Leander, actor, died, and Jeevan’s girlfriend callously abandoned him and went home. Jeevan subsequently wanders the snowy, freezing night trying to collect himself in the aftermath…and receives the first of a series of devastating phone calls from a friend who is an emergency room doctor. The friend, who is known to be unflappable in the face dire odds, is panicking over this new bug called the Georgia Flu. The infected are insurmountable and the deaths are piling up. In the last phone call, Jeevan hears his friend coughing and an eerie sense of defeat. An impulsive shopping spree at a late night market lands Jeevan, along with seven trolley loads of food, water and essentials at his invalid brother’s apartment ready to settle in for the duration. He was one of the lucky ones.

Kirsten, the little girl actress from the play, never sees her parents again and she is handed over to the care her older brother while the city begins to panic. Amidst a nightmare of the dying, they eventually walk out of a dead city.

A plane carrying several family and friends to Arthur Leander’s funeral in Toronto is diverted to the Severn Airport and never leaves it again.

The dividing line between ‘before’ and ‘after’ in this story is drawn by a vignette called ‘An Incomplete List’.  It is a litany of perceptions rather than a complete and literal notation of every little thing the human race currently takes for granted…all that is lost to them in their post apocalyptic future. It is enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end.

Present time begins again twenty years in the future with the travels of the nomadic Traveling Symphony. The rustic group brings performances of music – “classical, jazz, and orchestral renditions of pre-collapse pop songs”, and Shakespeare’s plays to the isolated towns and encampments in a circuitous annual pilgrimage like the troubadours of centuries past. It is here that the beauty of the author’s world-building really begins. Little Kirsten is now a lead actress in the plays the Symphony performs, and it is through her eyes the reader witnesses the state of survival and the remnant population at large, including loves, losses, discoveries, danger and death along the way. The Symphony returns to an ad hoc town called St Deborah by the Water after a two year absence to pick up two of their company that they were forced to leave behind. The town is mysteriously not the same and the two lost players and their newborn child have disappeared. A religious Prophet of enormous charisma and dangerous deception has taken over the town and sees it as his property, along with any woman or girl that catches his eye. The Symphony flees the town, but not without dire repercussions. Apparently, the Prophet digs graves for those who desert him, escaping the town and his absolute authority. Any who dare to return, do not survive their readymade graves for long.

The narrative is told in rather an abstract way, with flashbacks and the perspectives of other survivors stories interspersed with the dangers facing Kirsten, her friends, and the Symphony as a whole. Every one of them, each tidbit of story is tantalizing and compelling, being woven into a unique tapestry that culminates in several ‘a-ha’ moments for the reader. Some of them I saw coming, some I didn’t. The text is beautifully written and totally evocative, and is a ‘page turner’ of the first order in spite of the abstract nature of its construction.  The ‘Station Eleven’ of the novel’s title is the title of a series of strictly limited comic books created by Arthur Leander’s first wife, Miranda. Kirsten has two issues of the gorgeously rendered painted books and has carried them with her since that long ago fateful night and Arthur’s death. Doctor Eleven is the physicist hero of the books and takes his name from the station where he resides. He lives on a highly advanced space station that looks like a small planetoid. It has deep blue seas and rocky islands linked by bridges, and orange and crimson skies with two moons balancing on the horizon. However, Station Eleven is damaged. A hostile alien force has taken over the Earth and enslaved the population. Doctor Eleven, along with his colleagues and a number of refugees stole the space station and steered it through a black hole a thousand years in the future. In the battle to do so, the satellite’s artificial sky and a number of vital systems controlling the ocean levels were damaged. The moon-sized space station’s surface is so flooded that there are only a few remnant islands and an almost perpetual twilight. By fifteen years of hiding, a portion of the disaffected who have to live hand to mouth beneath the oceans want to go home…returning to Earth: to a hostile occupation force, yes, but also to a real sun and sunlight, real air, ocean and dirt, to a dream of restoration of all that they left behind. Somehow it echoes the longing of some of the real world survivors for what was lost.

Strangely enough, it is these two comic books that form a linkage from what was to what is, as much as Arthur Leander’s death does in the story. STATION ELEVEN has to be about the most beautifully written post-apocalyptic story I’ve ever read. The narration flows marvelously and you hang on tenterhooks to find out what happened to various characters along the way.  A kind of wistfulness about our 21st century culture prevails as a subtext, essaying an uneasy, but gentle undertone that it will not, cannot last.

As a well written, slightly ‘out of the box’ novel of enormous charm, STATION ELEVEN is a refreshingly different take on an ‘end of the world’ scenario. Less about the mass of depraved horrors that the human race can descend to, once the thin veneer of civilization has been stripped away, and more about surviving, and emerging on the other side and finding community again, one way or another. Less about the violence and gun battles that seem to imbue so many other ‘apocalypses’ where humanity has to physically fight to survive, and more about the survivors fight to regain their humanity and find others like them in a nearly totally depopulated world. Think a much nicer version of Stephen King’s THE STAND, with the ‘evil’ lacking supernatural overtones. Two decades out from Georgia Flu, survival means letting the past slide into yet another mythos, and rebuilding again to suit the current circumstances and needs. Fate, chance choice, circumstance, luck, coincidence, fear, courage, despair, drive, need, love, community, and necessity are the building blocks of this story…and it is a VERY worthwhile read. And by the end of the book, you’ll believe, along with Kirsten and the Traveling Symphony players that humanity can be saved….”Because survival is insufficient”. 

This was an entirely enjoyable read and something I will keep on my bookshelf to read again soon.
Cheers,
Marianne