Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

  • Title: Station Eleven
  • Author: Emily St. John Mandel
  • Genre: post-apocalyptic, literary fiction
  • Intended audience: adult
  • Format read: audiobook
  • Narrator: Kirsten Potter
  • Publisher: Random House Audio
  • Pub date: September 9, 2014
  • Trigger warnings: pandemic, death, cult, mentions of suicide, mentions of rape, guns, pedophilia, domestic abuse, violence
  • Rating: 4/5 stars (leaning upwards)

An audacious, darkly glittering novel set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse, Station Eleven tells the spellbinding story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.

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.

Spanning decades, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, this suspenseful, elegiac novel is rife with beauty. As Arthur falls in and out of love, as Jeevan watches the newscasters say their final good-byes, and as Kirsten finds herself caught in the crosshairs of the prophet, we see the strange twists of fate that connect them all. A novel of art, memory, and ambition, 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.

Is this a good book? Yes. Would I recommend it? Absolutely. Do I think it’s absolutely fascinating to read a book about a pandemic during a pandemic, but that was written 6 years before our pandemic? Heck yeah. However, please please be careful if you want to read this. I found the first few chapters especially to be quite reminiscent of the pandemic, and you should take extreme caution going into this.

One reason I recommend Station Eleven is because it is really interesting to read a book about a pandemic when you’ve actually lived through one. Usually while reading books that are slightly post-apocalyptic like this, you (or at least me, maybe other people don’t do this) tend to think about how you would respond if faced with that situation. How would I react? Would I be able to keep myself and my family safe? And of course the very weird thing about this is you really don’t have to wonder, because you already did it! In real life! 

It’s also interesting just to compare how an author six years ago imagined a pandemic might play out in North America, and how it actually played out. (How silly of her to think that capitalism could be brought down by something like a little pandemic!)

Although I believe my experience of the book was enhanced by this, even without all that Station Eleven is undeniably great. The storyline is interesting, the characters are fascinating, and the writing is beautiful. Station Eleven intricately weaves multiple plotlines, timelines, and characters. For me, it was all about how people’s lives can be significantly changed by the actions of people they only briefly met. The smallest of actions can have the largest of impacts. And although the premise itself is dark and the book features some heavy topics, overall it’s a hopeful look at the human condition. 

Although I definitely enjoyed it and thought it was beautiful, I chose not to give it five stars for a few different reasons. The first being that I sometimes had difficulty with the timelines. We jumped around time a lot, and while it was easy to distinguish pre and post pandemic, it was sometimes difficult to pinpoint when events were happening within that. Although the post-pandemic timeline with Kirsten and the players was linear throughout the book, we also got tidbits of her life after the pandemic but before the current storyline. And when we got introduced to Jeevan post-pandemic, I couldn’t deduce where in time he was in relation to the main story. And in a book like this, I think the little things like that are significant.

The other main issue was the ending: it kind of fell flat for me. Station Eleven itself was a carefully woven web of many stories that all tied together, and I kind of hoped to see the characters themselves unravel it a bit more. I know it wasn’t necessary for the plot, because we as readers already knew how everything fit together. But getting to see the characters work it out was the emotional reward that I needed. The fact that we didn’t get much of it made me very disappointed. 

While I can’t share more of the ending without spoiling it, just the way it ended didn’t vibe with me. It either needed to be cut off a little before it did, or go a little bit further, because the spot where it did end felt very abrupt, and rather than making me intrigued about what would happen after the book ended (as I believe the intention was), it just made me feel jilted as a reader.

However, snaps to Emily St. John Mandel for making me realize I can like post-apocalyptic literature. Turns out all I needed was an actually interesting story, and characters that aren’t stupid. 

I would recommend Station Eleven to someone who wants to get into literary fiction, someone who already enjoys literary fiction, or someone who appreciates puzzle box stories.

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