book reviews by Althea

Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel ****

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My post-apocalyptic book club selection for this month.

Imagine J.K. Rowling’s ‘The Casual Vacancy’ – with the collapse of civilization added in.
In both books, events are precipitated by a random death – and the remainder of the book thoughtfully and rather slowly investigates what becomes of all the different people who touched and were touched by this man’s life.

Of course, here, the details are quite different. The man who dies, Arthur Leander, is an aging but still well-known actor, who expires in the midst of a performance of ‘King Lear.’ It’s a heart attack that kills him, but little does anyone present know that soon, most of them will all be dead, due to a flu epidemic of unprecedented severity.

From this point, the book flashes both back and forward, exploring the lives of Leander and those who knew him – his wives, his son, the young actress with a bit part in ‘Lear,’ the audience member with aspirations of becoming an EMT, who ministered to Leander as he was dying.

The book explores the concept of celebrity from several viewpoints – what is fame like for the one who becomes famous, for those who knew the star before fame hit, for those who are drawn into the orbit of that star, for the paparazzi, for the fans? Is there a difference in how art affects others when some seek recognition for their art, and others avoid the public eye?

The story is also concerned with the role of art in society. These characters cling to things of the past – things of beauty. The Traveling Symphony takes their show on the road, bringing Shakespeare and classical music to far-flung post-collapse villages. At a distant location, one man curates the Museum of Civilization, putting now-anachronistic items such as defunct iPads and high-heeled shoes on display. Characters hang on to items such as a glass paperweight and an artist’s graphic novel, solely for their evocative, aesthetic value.

My one – slight – criticism of the book has to do with how religion is dealt with in the plot. It’s a common feature of post-apocalyptic novels to have some kind of weird and sinister cult appear – and this one is no exception. I liked where it seemed to be going, with the cult turning out to be influenced – in a warped way – by some of the same factors that came into play in some of the other characters’ lives; but I came away feeling like the issue was settled too neatly and easily, and that I wanted a stronger statement from the author on the issue… it’s almost like the book walked up to it, and then backed away…

Overall, though, I found this to be a quietly enjoyable novel.


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