Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – Book Review

station 11

“Survival is Insufficient”

What would the world be like if 99% of the population was wiped out, in a matter of days? Station Eleven explores a world where a highly contagious and fatal strain of flu has done just that. It is cleverly written, jumping between characters and times without ever becoming overly complicated or clumsy. The author weaves the strands of different characters lives together as they struggle to survive in a suddenly post-apocalyptic world. The main time frames that we see throughout are the present day, pre-collapse, and Year Nineteen, nineteen years afterwards.

The story opens with the death of Arthur Leander, thrice divorced ageing movie star, as he attempts a theatrical comeback performing King Lear onstage in Toronto. This is the night that the flu reaches Canada and nothing will ever be the same. But although he dies at the opening of the book, Arthur’s story links several of the characters together. The theme of Shakespeare is also continued into the future, as in Year Nineteen we are introduced to the Travelling Symphony – a group of travelling musicians and actors who perform Shakespeare plays and musical recitals in the isolated settlements they come across. Kirsten, probably my favourite character, is an actress travelling with the Symphony. She remembers how, as a child in a production of King Lear, she watched Arthur Leander collapse onstage and retains a memory of him as a kindly person who befriended her when she was lonely. She still carries around with her two copies of a comic that he gave to her, the Station Eleven of the title, and scavenges what information she can about the man and his life from found magazines in broken-into houses. Kirsten has had to be tough to survive, a Shakespearean actor who carries knives at her belt, and the Travelling Symphony continue to roam and perform even though it is dangerous and they must defend themselves, because they believe in the importance of what they do and what they can bring to people. Kirsten can’t remember much of her life before the flu, forgetting what it looks like to see a plane in the sky or to open a working fridge and feel the cool air. She also has a whole year after the flu which she can’t, or won’t remember.

We also meet Jeevan, the paparazzo turned paramedic-in-training who leaps up to perform CPR on Arthur’s final stage and Miranda, Arthur’s artistic first wife, now a shipping executive. As the connections between the characters are slowly revealed and we also see more of Arthur’s life before the fall, they are all seemly headed for the same destination, giving the reader some hope of resolution. But who is the disturbing self-titled Prophet? Will they make it to the Museum of Civilisation, and who is the elderly curator who waits there?

Station Eleven is more than just another dystopian novel; it explores the importance of art, literature, memory and friendship, and asks, what is it to really survive?

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All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven – Book Review

bright places

TW for discussions of suicide

“You are all the colours at once, at full brightness”

The story follows popular Violet Markey, struggling to adjust after the death of her older sister, and Theodore Finch, an outsider with a preoccupation for death. The two form an unlikely friendship after meeting at the top of the school bell tower, where Finch talks Violet down from the edge. They embark on a school project together which quickly becomes much bigger and more important than it originally seems, as they travel the state looking for ‘local wonders’ and explore brilliant and bizarre attractions (giant ball of paint anyone?) Finch helps to pull Violet out of her grief and move on, but he also struggles with bipolar disorder and thoughts of suicide.

The thing which really makes the book, for me, is the fact that it is told from two perspectives. This is how it becomes a romance but at the same time avoids romanticising its subject matter, which is of course a dangerous thing to do. If we did not have the insight of Finch’s first person chapters it could easily lead him to become something of a cliché – the romantic bad boy loner, the maverick who doesn’t follow the rules. But when we get to see Finch in his own words it is clear that he is terrified of certain aspects of his bipolar personality, and we see what it takes for him to keep himself going and to navigate through everyday life. He uses the terms Asleep and Awake to distinguish between his lows and highs, when we first meet him it is clear that he has is terrified of returning to Asleep and is trying everything he can to keep himself Awake and engaged with the world. Violet is the latest project for him to throw himself into, and through their adventures the pair soon fall for each other as Finch tries help Violet come back to life.

I really enjoyed the writing style and the way the author brings the two main characters alive, with their own individual personalities and challenges. Both the writing and the plot sweep you along and keep you wanting to read more, as you get caught up in Violet and Finch’s wanderings and wonderings. Particularly well written is Finch’s spiral downwards in the second half on the novel, giving the reader a sense of how he feels trapped and scared, but also determined not to give in, as well as Violet’s increasing sense of worry and powerlessness over the situation. The theme of mental illness is sensitively dealt with throughout; the author avoids overdramatizing the situation or turning to cliché, perhaps because she has experience of losing someone close to bipolar disorder herself.

I absolutely loved this book, but it should definitely come with a warning not to read the ending anywhere public. Particularly, as in my case, not during the lunch break of a monthly managers meeting, unless sobbing in front of colleagues is the desired effect!