The Most Unnerving Book to Read During a Pandemic

“She was thinking about the way sheโ€™d always taken for granted that the world had certain people in it, either central to her days or unseen and infrequently thought of. How without any one of these people the world is a subtly but unmistakably altered place, the dial turned just one or two degrees.”

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

For the past seven months, our lives have all drastically changed due to the unprecedented circumstances of a global pandemic. The short term effects of the coronavirus are felt by us all everyday. Some have tragically experienced personal loss, while others have contracted the virus themselves. Time will tell what long term effects this will have on us as individuals and as a human race. As I reflect on the past seven months I remember how scary those first few weeks were. I remember going into work becoming increasingly paranoid every day. I remember walking around an empty city and sitting on an empty subway car. I remember watching the news, horrified. One day, I was working in the office; The next day I was told to stay home, and I haven’t returned since. The next few months ahead of us are still so tenuous and uncertain. Now that we’re entering the fall there are concerns about rising coronavirus cases. While there is some talk of a vaccine by the end of the year, who knows how long it will take for life to return to normal. Is it even possible to “return” to the way we were before the coronavirus?

With all this happening around me I decided now was the ideal time to read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, a story about a pandemic that wipes out most of the human race leading to the collapse of civilized society and a dawning of a new era of lawlessness and disease. The novel opens during a production of King Lear in which the lead actor, Arthur Leander, dies of a heart attack in the middle of the play. In the hours and days following his death, the Georgia Flu takes over, leading to the death of millions. In the post-apocalyptic world, Kirsten Raymonde is an actress who moves around the Great Lakes region with a Traveling Symphony performing for the small villages that they meet on the road. Arthur and Kirsten’s stories along with a handful of other individuals are woven together through a narrative that switches back and forth from before and after the virus.

For a majority of this reading experience, I felt goosebumps up and down my arms. Having the context of the coronavirus pandemic intensified my reading experience in the best and worst ways. I was feeling anxious and on edge while reading parts of this book, I was enraptured, I was scared; My heart was broken, and it was pieced back together. Station Eleven was published in 2014, and the author couldn’t have foreseen that a real pandemic would be coming, but so much of this story felt eerily similar to our experiences. When I still didn’t know how devastating the impact of the virus would be I might have pictured a world like this one. People leaving their jobs, vacating buildings, escaping cities, ransacking grocery stores, abandoning their cars on the highway, and fighting just to survive. It was as if Emily St. John Mandel was taking my worst case, nightmare-scenario of the pandemic and putting it on paper.

Despite being eery and unnerving given our current circumstances, I cannot praise this book highly enough. I absolutely loved it, and I think it’s because it hit so close to home. At the heart of the book, there is a really powerful message about the unifying power of art and storytelling. It is such a beautiful concept to have a group of musicians and actors bonding together in the aftermath of a catastrophe and traveling just to perform and bring art to people. It made me realize how valuable it is that I have the ability to play my music and read my books when I’m feeling scared or hopeless. As they say in the book, “survival is insufficient”; Even when the world ended, the Traveling Symphony still found a reason to find joy and small pleasures in life through the medium of their art. I would recommend Station Eleven if you like post-apocalyptic or dystopian literature. If you like books such as The Hunger Games, The Walking Dead graphic novels, Divergent, Fahrenheit 451, and books of a similar theme then you’ll enjoy this book. Be mindful of everything I said in this review about feeling anxious and unnerved as I read this book. If you are struggling with the reality of the pandemic or have experienced real loss because of it then this book might be triggering and would not be a good choice for you at this time.

Please support an independent, black-owned bookstore and consider purchasing Station Eleven from The Little Boho Bookshop in Bayonne, NJ:

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9 thoughts on “The Most Unnerving Book to Read During a Pandemic”

  1. What a great review, Brianna! I read Station Eleven a few years ago on a plan and, even though I had a similar dread, I loved it. I read her newest book, The Glass Hotel, over the summer and I loved that one too.

    It was great hearing your voice!

  2. Taking for granted that the world has certain people in it… yes, don’t we all do that? A core part of maturing involves recognizing the fragility of everything and every person around us– including ourselves. It sounds like this book really hits the nail on the head.

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