Books with a powerful awareness message: Station Eleven

I picked up Station Eleven after reading excellent reviews of the book, including one by Modern Mrs. Darcy, featured on a list of books to read when one feels like the world is falling apart. This has been a challenging summer for many, with sad stories from those we know closely, terrible news reports, and too much general noise and confusion. I sought a book that would be tough to put down and one that would help to reinforce a greater sense of purpose and meaning.

Station Eleven begins with a production of King Lear in one of my favourite theatres, the Elgin and Winter Garden in Toronto. In the midst of the play, the actor Arthur Leander collapses on stage and dies of a heart attack. Jeevan Chaudhary is a paramedic in training who attempts to resuscitate the actor. Observing the real-life drama unfolding on stage before her is Kirsten, a child actor who was greatly inspired by Arthur’s work and feels a strong curiosity to learn more about his life. Two days following the death at the theatre, the world is plagued by Georgian Flu, an epidemic that sweeps throughout the globe. Among the survivors are Jeevan and Kirsten, who separately struggle to make new lives for themselves.

I was slightly hesitant about reading a post-apocalyptic novel. I tend to stay as far away as possible from material that I would perceive as too heavy for my HSP self. Emily St. John Mandel’s book provided just the right amount of description of a desolate world before presenting the stories of a jaded actor, two of his three ex-wives, Jeevan, and Kisten. Ultimately, Station Eleven is a story of a search for meaning through human connection and deconstruction of the past. When the world as we once knew it is no more, we must dig deeper to create.

Without any spoilers, I want to share with you a poignant message from a scene that takes place toward the final third of the book, when Clark Thompson, a man who was a good friend of Arthur’s, looks over his professional notes from his days of working as an organizational change management consultant. With equal parts humour and dismay, he confronts the understanding that in the old days (in today’s world), many career-oriented people walked the world like zombies governed by an external schedule along the lines of: wake up; check email; go to work while looking down at a handheld device, scrolling mindlessly, barely looking up to acknowledge other people who are passing by us; sit through the workday, staring at a computer screen, communicating with others through email and text messages; commute back home while staring at a handheld device, and continue to check the same device before going to bed at night. Clark asks a man with whom he is reviewing the documents about the unsettling terminology of ‘firing off’ emails, suggesting an impulsive action amidst a life that moves too fast. The deconstruction of the past in the context of technology provides us with an eye-opening reminder of our commonplace reliance on computers for everyday communication. For me, this is a powerful reminder to pause to consider our everyday habits and expectations.

In the dystopian world in which Kirsten travels with a symphony that entertains communities with music and Shakespearean plays, she cherishes not only Shakespeare’s words and her work as an artist, but also a special comic book and a collection of TV guide magazines with gossip articles about her idol actor. To her, these are fragile reminders of the finer points from a past of which she is not interested in completely letting go. In the new world, the element of hope is sourced within the big questions and lessons learned from existential introspection into past mistakes and successes, and those lessons have left me with plenty to ponder. It has been almost a week since I finished reading the book (I breezed through it in three days) and I continue to be haunted — in the most positive way — by this gem.

What books have you read recently that left a big impression on you by reminding you to practise greater awareness? Please leave a comment below to join the conversation.

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[…] Station Eleven begins with a production of King Lear in one of my favourite theatres, the Elgin and Winter Garden in Toronto. In the midst of the play, the actor Arthur Leander collapses on stage and dies of a heart attack. Jeevan Chaudhary is a paramedic in training who attempts to resuscitate the actor. Observing the real-life drama unfolding on stage before her is Kirsten, a child actor who was greatly inspired by Arthur’s work and feels a strong curiosity to learn more about his life. Two days following the death at the theatre, the world is plagued by… Read more »

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