Saturday, September 10, 2016

Review: Station Eleven

Author: Emily St. John Mandel
Genre: Science fiction, literary fiction, post-apocalyptic
My rating: ★★★★★ (5 of 5 stars)


The last wedge of chocolate you chewed on. The fading flavour of coffee on your tongue. The last note of your favourite song that hung in the air. The creased page of the last book you read. The excited shriek you let out when you caught a virtual creature in a hip game-app. The uneven but beautiful smile of a friend. The soft, persistent kiss of someone you love. The familiar dissonance of the city—the honking of cars, the prattling strangers on the sidewalk during rush hour, the tired sighs of commuters as they wait for the next jam-packed train…

When the world as we know it comes to an end, what would you miss?

How much of the things we have today do we unwittingly take for granted? How much of the inconsequential things do we put so much weight on? How much of these actually matters when we are left with nothing but the actual thing that mattered—our lives?

Emily St. John’s Station Eleven will make you stop in your tracks and contemplate on these questions.

Coming up with an all-encompassing synopsis for the novel is a bit difficult. In essence, it is a post-apocalyptic patchwork of anecdotes, but it does not seem to sound like any of the novels in the genre that hit the shelves recently. It does not have anti-heroines that notice something wrong in the system and spark a revolution; it does not construct Big Brother-esque societies or its Brave New World counterparts, despite the obvious pop culture sensibilities on the subject that linger in it. At its simplest, it depicts the quotidian lives of people before and after the civilization disintegrated—before and after a devastating flu pandemic wiped out more than half the population on the planet.

The novel focuses on The Travelling Symphony, a troupe of theatre artists who have dedicated themselves to keeping the remnants of art and humanity alive by performing in towns. The story leaps back and forth in time and introduces characters outside the troupe that still ties to it via a brush of fate. We meet an actress that managed to safekeep a piece of comic well into wrecked world; an overwrought prophet who believes he is the Messiah; a stranded group of “quarantined” passengers who makes the airport their new home; a frustrated surgeon who perhaps holds the key to slowly re-starting a civilization; and the late Hollywood actor that serves as all these characters’ subtle line of connection.

Alternating the gloomily lyrical with the hopeful, Station Eleven is the kind of novel that leaves glowing imprints on both the mind and the heart of its readers. It lunges into the commercial playpen of “What Happens After the End” that fills today’s bestseller shelves to the brim, but it refuses to be interned in the malignant recycles of what a piece of dystopian literature should be like. It carves a niche of its own and gets its message across with a tone knotting together poetry and prose.
The storytelling, although unconventional enough to bewilder readers in the beginning, unfolds its beauty in a leisurely pace.  Sometimes I stop to reread a few passages, which will then prompt me to look around and realize how fortunate I still am to be experiencing the world we have now.

Since for the most part the novel sews together slice-of-life type of narratives, the story is justifiably not plot-driven. The whole thing is laid out for the readers to experience, thanks of course to Mandel’s excellent world-building. Following the troupe can make you feel like you are part of it, too. You get to feel like you are walking among its members, your skin sun-drenched and your feet sore from being protected only by slippers fashioned from old tires; you clutch your violin or your flute in one hand and knives or guns in the other, knowing that being part of a harsher world forces you to juggle being a creator and a destroyer at the same time. And then there are the idiosyncrasies, the intricate map of overlapping relationships of your dysfunctional family, fractured often by frivolities but pieced back together by your need to be with each other.

(And though I am enamoured with how the troupe was fleshed out, my favourite parts are always with a secondary character who only gets his story told at the latter part of the novel. I enjoyed every bit of his chapters, from the dreamy notions that make him straddle the line between sanity and madness to the way he led the slow rebuilding of their worlds starting from their own corners of the airport.)
It is easy to lose oneself in the novel, with the tone being mostly elegiac and its subject matter with a strong potential to be close to one’s heart. Station Eleven allows you to actually see what’s in front of you and urges you to enjoy these temporary things while they are still there. Shrouded with the melancholy of a poem and the haunting tang of reality, it is arguably one of the most darkly poignant books that celebrate the world as we know it.

In the end, it is a long piece about gratitude…and I’m deeply thankful that I managed to put my hands on this novel.

Five stars for a great read.

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