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Station Eleven CoverThere is something very lovely about this book, a National Book Award finalist. The author, Emily St. John Mandel, delivers a complex tale of the collapse of the modern world and of the interconnectedness of its inhabitants. Not just another post-apocalyptic tale, this novel spans decades and follows five characters whose lives intersect. It is a reflection on the resilience (and fragility) of humanity and on the restorative power of the arts. But these themes emerge slowly over the course of the book, so shame on me for leading with them.

The tale begins in a theater in Toronto, where a famous Hollywood actor is playing King Lear in a stage production. He suffers a medical crisis on stage, and the play cannot be finished. As the other actors linger in the theater’s bar that night, we glimpse their future: “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.” (Now that’s a hook.)

The same night, Jeevan, an audience member and EMT in training who treated the fallen actor, gets a call from a friend who is a doctor at a Toronto hospital. There’s a flu—the Georgia Flu—and the hospital is filling with patients. He tells Jeevan that the flu is spreading like wildfire (my words, the author is much cleverer) and that it’s a full-fledged epidemic. He warns Jeevan to leave the city. The reader accompanies Jeevan as he buys cartloads of household supplies and holes up in his brother’s high-rise apartment. But soon enough, the story leaps 20 years into the future, and it’s clear that very few survived the Georgia Flu: society as it was at the novel’s beginning has gone.

The story jumps smoothly between past and future. The characters’ lives are interwoven in various ways, and it’s easy to appreciate each unveiling of connection as it appears. There is the usual sense of foreboding that dwells in a post-apocalyptic novel: will this person survive the Flu? will bandits kill them on the road? will they find food? how will they survive? Yet, there is a sense of wonder at the meaningfulness of these lives and of community.

I admit to a bit of bias, because much of the novel is set in Michigan, my home state. But this was the first real page-turner that I’ve read in a long while. And I have to admire St. John Mandel’s work—the novel is well crafted. I would even read this again, and I can’t say that about many books.


Sometimes I wonder why I enjoy memoir so much. Why should a stranger’s life–or some particular occurrence in it–be so compelling? It seems curious, even voyeuristic. But the memoirs I’ve liked most have a strong narrative arc, like fiction. It’s the narrative that’s compelling, regardless of whether it’s a true story or an imagined one. This memoir reinforced that realization for me.

David MacLean was a Fulbright scholar working in Hyderabad, India when he awoke on a train platform without any knowledge of where he was, why he was there, or even who he was. As he stood, not knowing where to begin, a kindly tourism officer offered assistance. As the officer helps him discover his identity and contact his parents, MacLean flits in and out of lucidity. The reader follows along through hallucination after hallucination, through cycles of waking and dreaming or maybe not even dreaming, maybe more hallucinating, and all the while the reader is thinking, “Whoa! This is CRAZY! What is going on??”

The memoir does a great job of showing readers what this confusing, traumatic experience must have been like. Through lucid moments and hallucinations, the readers piece things together in the order that MacLean must have done, though certainly with better cognition than he was experiencing. He is hospitalized, strapped down, and medicated, and aside from descriptions of visitors and doctors and the continuing hallucinations, we don’t learn much about why he’s in this state until his parents come to take him home.

The mystery of the story keeps readers going, at least in the early part of the book. In the beginning there are all the questions: who, and what, and where, and why. But as we journey further into the story, we’re asking how: how will he get his memory back? Will he get his memory back?

We travel with MacLean as he returns from India to Ohio, United States, to recover at his parents’ home. As he pieces together his identity and his past, we learn that the psychosis had been caused by an anti-malarial drug, that it has happened to others, and that doctors aren’t sure whether he’ll ever fully recover. For a time, David pretends a lot. He plays the role that it seems he should be playing, pretending to remember the people he sees in photos, hiding some of the aftereffects of the hallucinations. As memories begin to return, piecemeal, he struggles to put his life story together even as he returns to India to finish his Fulbright and then returns to graduate school to complete his studies.

I appreciate that MacLean has shared this terrifying experience, because its cause–the drug mefloquine (brand name Lariam)–is still in use today, and people need to be aware of its dangerous neuropsychiatric effects. (MacLean does mention that a doctor told him years after the incident in India that the cause was not Lariam, so maybe the jury is out on this point?) Information about this drug is woven into the narrative and a chart detailing its many adverse effects is included in the postlude. Disturbingly, MacLean reports that the drug was widely prescribed by the U.S. military for soldiers up until 2009 and was still used in “special situations” as late as 2012.

MacLean’s story is disturbing, painful even, because the trauma described is intense and his struggle is profound. But it’s also an encouraging account of human resilience and an exploration of enduring questions about identity and memory.

I finished this book weeks ago, but I delayed writing my review because I wasn’t sure what to say about it. I can’t rave; it didn’t capture me in that way. I can’t dismiss it or offer criticism; it is too good, too well written for either or those reactions. What it is, perhaps more than anything, is real. The writing is understated and powerfully descriptive, conveying the steady pace of life in the small fictional town of Holt, Colorado where the novel is set. The characters are skillfully depicted; each of them seemed like someone I know, or once knew—a pregnant teenager, a high school teacher, a pair of elderly farmers, two young brothers. Likewise, the setting is vivid and realistic.

Plainsong was a finalist for the National Book Award (NBA) and won other prestigious awards. Critics loved it. I tried to, but I kept wishing that something would happen. I was impatient. Each chapter follows one character, so that first you learn what is happening with the young girl, then the two little boys, then the teacher, and so on. It takes some time for the reader to see the threads coming together. But as the characters’ lives become more and more intertwined over the course of a year, we see a community growing together, a family being created. The story, then, is that of the quiet acts of bravery, kindness, and generosity of the characters, who each seek to connect to others.

There is something very lovely and powerful about this book. There is the truth that to truly connect with others, one must become vulnerable. One must show need, expose the self. There is also a profound sense that everything will be okay, that people’s capacity to love is abiding, and that everyone can find a home.