Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Book Review - Station Eleven

If you've been paying attention to books, movies or other entertainment, you've likely noticed an increasing trend of post-apocalyptic themed stories. The novel Station Eleven follows this trend but does so in a way that I found fresh and interesting. Many of the recent post-apocalyptic novels I've seen are heavily plot driven with action-adventure stories involving survival against some ongoing threat or groups struggling against some dystopic or overbearing government or organization. Station Eleven does have plot elements of struggle and survival after the fall of civilization, but this story is much more than an explosive adrenaline filled adventure with characters scrambling chaotically and fighting each other for survival or supremacy. Rather, Station Eleven focuses heavily on character development and following the lives of a few key characters over many decades. The novel navigates back and forth in time giving us snippets of the lives of these characters before, during and after the fall of mankind. There are most certainly action sequences like those you might expect in a post-pandemic setting such as this, but there are many more sequences that spend time exploring the lives of these characters and showcasing the things that make us human. By comparing these very human scenes before and after civilization as we know it, the author presents us with some interesting ideas about what is truly important and how we deal with changes to the things that matter most.

The high level synopsis of the book is that there is an outbreak of a new strain of the flu virus with a fast incubation period and a very high mortality rate. The flu is identified but due to how fast it spreads and how fast it kills, there is just no time to adequately or effectively treat the disease. Within a few weeks, it's evident that the world will never be the same and shortly thereafter, the various advances of modern society fall into decay and gradually disappear without adequate people to create, operate and maintain them. Electricity fades away leaving mankind in darkness and reverting communication methods by a century or more. Gasoline and oil supplies decay and run out, leaving people to travel by foot or using animal power. Luxuries and modern extravagances are set aside in lieu of the need to work just for survival.

The book opens in a theatre and we see an actor named Arthur Leander die on stage. Interestingly, he doesn't die from the flu. Instead, he collapses from an unrelated heart attack. Jeevan is an EMT in the audience who leaps to the stage to try unsuccessfully to save Arthur as a child actress named Kirsten watches. As the paramedics arrive, Jeevan leaves the theatre and walks through the city, thinking about priorities and life and trying to decide what he should do. At the same time, news of the flu begins to spread even though the full extent of the problem isn't yet known. Jeevan figures out that things are worse than expected and he goes to his brother's home to try and weather the storm. We are then taken to a time fifteen years later and learn that Kirsten survived the epidemic and is now part of a traveling troupe of actors and musicians performing music and Shakespearean plays to try and bring some joy to the world they wander.

As mentioned earlier, the book bounces back and forth from the onset of the epidemic and the "present" time fifteen years later. It also slides backwards in time to provide backstory into the lives of our characters in the years leading up to the epidemic. These nonlinear vignettes slowly provide more and more insights into our main characters. Even though he dies in the first segment, the actor Arthur Leander is a central element around which our characters and plot orbit. We find out more about his interactions with child actress Kirsten. We get to meet his ex-wives and family and follow one of them into the post-flu world. We follow his would be savior Jeevan over the years. We watch as their lives gently circle one another and see the way their different paths and choices create stark similarities and differences over time.

I don't want to go too much into the various plotlines because that would really spoil the experience. As I mentioned, there isn't a big "overthrow the government" or "find the vital cure" plot that I can describe. The story arcs that we see are very human and very normal but take on greater impact by being set against the end of the modern world as we know it. As each character and situation gets more and more fleshed out, the author presents new questions and ideas for the reader to consider and try to apply to our current lives.

I really enjoyed the structure of this book and I loved the way the characters were developed into vibrant, multifaceted people in a world that feels all too possible. I really think the nonlinear format made the book more interesting by subtly presenting elements and then slowly piecing them together like a jigsaw puzzle. As more and more of the characters' stories are revealed, the puzzle becomes more and more clear until we have an elegant and striking complete picture. This isn't an action-packed end of the world story so if a reader opens the book searching that sort of story, they will be disappointed. However, the book does a great job of weaving together intriguing chapters and maintaining a solid pace by dropping breadcrumbs of information and conflict in a way that keeps pressing the reader on and investing the reader more and more in this vivid world. I found this an impressive and thoughtful read that left me feeling contemplative as I thought about not only where the world of the novel would progress but also how the concepts of the book can be applied into our current world.

4 out of 5 stars

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