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Audiobook Review: Station Eleven

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Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel read by Kirsten Potter

Station 11

An audacious, darkly glittering novel about art, fame, and ambition set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse, from the author of three highly-acclaimed previous novels.

One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time—from the actor’s early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theater troupe known as The Travelling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains—this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor’s first wife, his oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony, caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet. Sometimes terrifying, sometimes tender, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it.

A few days ago, I got an email alert from my local library announcing that one of my longstanding holds was available. When I saw that it was Station Eleven I was excited enough to return something and download it immediately. What’s kind of amusing is that I can’t remember exactly why I wanted to listen it. I bet it had something to do with the intersecting fiascoes surrounding the Hugo Awards, but whatever.

My corrupt memory and the entirely digital experience of wanting, acquiring, and experiencing the novel are sort of integral to the narrative. In the absence of our communication and transportation infrastructure, how do we retain our experiences and define ourselves? How do we preserve and transmit our culture? What is our culture?

Station Eleven is, in the most succinct analysis, post apocalyptic speculative fiction. But it’s really so much more than that. Emily St. John Mandel constructs a dense interwoven narrative combing elements of epistle, interview, memoir, both internal and external analepsis and prolepsis, and both real and imaginary secondary texts.

It sounds impenetrable and yet it’s not. The narrative flows naturally, easily, shifting in time and point of view with control and precision. Where some ambitious literary fiction can be disorienting or unweildy, Station Eleven manages to feel organic by sinking the reader deep into the characters’ lives and experiences. All of the impressive technique is subsumed within the compelling story being told.

And Kirsten Potter does an excellent job telling it. She speaks clearly and precisely and subtly shifts her tone depending on the type of narrative at play. Shakespeare has a bit of gravity, interviews have a hollow formality, action has a sort of breathlessness. I can see myself taking a chance on a book because of her narration. The audio isn’t so high that an unamplified device will suffice, but this was definitely worth the trouble of hooking up to speakers.

It’s frightening, empowering, melancholy, and stoic. The use of King Lear seems utterly appropriate. The title, traditionally Jesus being nailed to the cross, suggests suffering and sacrifice and ultimately a better world to come. If you believe that sort of thing.

I’ve read so many books that want to be what Station Eleven is, to do what Station Eleven does so effortlessly, that I’d kind of lost hope. A few chapters in I could see the broad outline of the story and I still enjoyed every moment of its unfolding. So, even though I can’t remember why I wanted to listen to it, I’m glad I did.

This ones for two kinds of readers. Recommended for fans of White Noise, The Blind Assassin, and Confessions of a Memory Eater. And fans of The Walking Dead, World War Z, and The Year of the Flood. Obviously if you like Margaret Atwood you should get to it as soon as possible.

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