One of the unexpected benefits of slowing down my blogging pace this year is that I’ve only been reviewing books that I really feel compelled to talk about. Today I’ve got two books that I want to shout about from the rooftops and that, I’m almost certain, will make my favorite fiction of the year list.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
One snowy night Arthur Leander, a famous actor, has a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo-turned-EMT, is in the audience and leaps to his aid. A child actress named Kirsten Raymonde watches in horror as Jeevan performs CPR, pumping Arthur’s chest as the curtain drops, but Arthur is dead. That same night, as Jeevan walks home from the theater, a terrible flu begins to spread. Hospitals are flooded and Jeevan and his brother barricade themselves inside an apartment, watching out the window as cars clog the highways, gunshots ring out, and life disintegrates around them.
Fifteen years later, Kirsten is an actress with the Traveling Symphony. Together, this small troupe moves between the settlements of an altered world, performing Shakespeare and music for scattered communities of survivors. Written on their caravan, and tattooed on Kirsten’s arm is a line from Star Trek: “Because survival is insufficient.” But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who digs graves for anyone who dares to leave.
I love it when a book grabs you at the first page and refuses to let go. That was my experience with Station Eleven, the second book I picked up during this fall’s Readathon. I was just mesmerized by it from the first page. Emily St. John Mandel sets the scene just beautifully, opening the story with a production of King Lear. After the lead actor collapses on stage, Mandel spends time with some of the nameless crew members, getting a drink and wrapping their heads around the evening. That scene ends with this startling paragraph– “Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.” How amazingly dark and wonderful is that?
But what really makes the book wonderful, I think, is that it’s not a story about apocalypse. It’s a story about survival and civilization and what we as humans need to thrive after we learn how to survive. That question is complicated and also optimistic and loving and addicting. It’s a book about being human and what humans will do to and for each other. I dunno, I just adored it – one of my favorites of all time, I think.
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
It is 1922, and London is tense. Ex-servicemen are disillusioned; the out-of-work and the hungry are demanding change. And in South London, in a genteel Camberwell villa—a large, silent house now bereft of brothers, husband, and even servants—life is about to be transformed as impoverished widow Mrs. Wray and her spinster daughter, Frances, are obliged to take in lodgers.
With the arrival of Lilian and Leonard Barber, a modern young couple of the “clerk class,” the routines of the house will be shaken up in unexpected ways. Little do the Wrays know just how profoundly their new tenants will alter the course of Frances’s life—or, as passions mount and frustration gathers, how far-reaching, and how devastating, the disturbances will be.
A bunch of people who are more articulate than me have already raved about this book, so I’ll keep it short: The Paying Guests is a really amazing read. Each of the three sections reads like a distinct type of story – a Victorian story of manners, a sexy romance novel, and a murder thriller – but the whole is held together by an intriguing and wonderful main character. This was exactly the book I needed to kick a terrible reading slump to the curb.
Disclosure: I purchased a copy of Station Eleven and checked out The Paying Guests from the library. Part of this post originally appeared at Book Riot.