Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Digital Audiobook narrated by Kirsten Potter
Published by Knopf on September 9, 2014
Genres: Apoctalyptic, Dystopia, Fiction, Post-Apoctalyptic, Science Fiction
Length: 336 pages or 10 hours, 40 minutes
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One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time—from the actor's early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theater troupe known as the Traveling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains—this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor's first wife, his oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony, caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet.
Sometimes terrifying, sometimes tender, 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.
This review is a bit complicated for me. On the one hand, Emily St. John Mandel wrote a vibrant, interesting world for this dystopia, but on the other hand, the story just rambles on and on with no real destination. There are moments where I thought there was going to be this massive meetup between all the characters and we’d hit some sort of climax, but it never happened.
The best I can figure, the storyline of Station Eleven is a slice of life between four different characters as they describe their experiences in the “before” and the “after”. For all these characters, their interactions nears the fall out relate to a common strand – interactions and memories with Arthur Leander, a Canadian actor. For those who survive, their post-apocalyptic memories all run into the character of The Prophet (Leander’s son Tyler). As a piece of literary fiction, this one kept me analyzing the devices used, significance of seemingly casual moments, and potential metaphors. For example, early in the novel The Traveling Symphony keeps losing actors and musicians on the road, disappearing into dust. Eventually, August and Kirsten lose the Symphony – it just vanishes, with no sign of what direction it have gone after a tumultuous rainstorm. For about half the novel, I managed to convince myself that this incident was part of a greater metaphor and that Kirsten was an unintentionally unreliable narrator… which wasn’t the case at all and I over-analyzed it. In this way, Station Eleven feels like a novel you have to read more than once to catch all the nuances.
The open-ended questions within the storyline both fascinate and annoy me. I don’t read a lot of literary fiction, but I like the way it challenges my perception. And I dislike its common lack of coherent plot. So in that regard, I’m on a bit of a see-saw with this book.
Emily’s writing isn’t particularly flowery, but she easily wraps you up in her narrative. In many ways, her storytelling reminds me of Gillian Flynn’s style in Gone Girl. While both novels fall into different genres, there’s such a careful balance of dialogue and narrative that you can fall into the story.
I felt like the characters came in various levels of interest, but not because of the writing. I think favorite POVs here will come with personal preference. For example, I gravitated toward 28-year-old Kirsten, whose storyline primarily shows the after-effects of the epidemic. Her story takes place in Year 20, once people have mostly settled down. I liked hearing about the changes in life and people trying to remember the Before. Kirsten’s storyline focuses a lot on memory. She collects celebrity gossip magazines related to Leander, because he was a part of her past that she is trying to hold on to. At other times, you find Kirsten asking other people things like “Did refrigerators have a light as well as cooling?”. She tries to grip these little details, because once these things are forgotten, it’s like they never happened. But she was only eight during he outbreak, so her memories are foggy and she questions if they are real, or things she has imagined from other peoples’ stories.
Other characters interested me less. Arthur Leander and his waffling between fame and divorces bored me, and Jeevan’s life as a celebrity photographer first and a trained doctor after the fallout both failed to impress. I understand their involvement, but I just… don’t care, I guess? I was happy when their storylines switched to Kirsten, Miranda, or Clarke. Most books with rotating POVs have this aspect of interesting/not interesting characters, and I believe that certain readers will really latch on to the ones I didn’t enjoy.
If I had to choose just one aspect to praise Emily St. John Mandel for, it would be her world-building. A lot of the choices made here gave the exhausted dystopia genre a fresh feel. For example, I loved her take on the fallout. Most dystopias choose to base their post-apocalyptic scenario on war. The only ones that use an outbreak tend to be zombie dystopias, like Feed, but what Station Eleven chooses is one of the most plausible possibilities. The history nerd in me is seriously resisting an extensive lecture on the bubonic plague and the influenza pandemic of 1918 here… not to mention numerous other pandemic. Lets just say an evolved strain of a common illness is a scary possible dystopian future.
I appreciated that Emily jumped around between the “before”, “after”, and “during”. Many dystopias are only set in the “after”, which is all well and good, but it was interesting to watch how everything played out. How everything changed and yet how so many things seemed to stay the same. It’s fascinating to see the adaptations of modern items (pickup trucks into wagons) and not just have everything moved to “scrap”.
It seems like the perfect novel to be taught in an advanced high school levels, and definitely has the ring of an American science-fiction classic. Station Eleven is impressive. And for anyone who enjoyed Station Eleven, I’d suggest Wonderblood as a follow-up – it has the same ideas of a religious cult and travelling group of entertainers in a dark dystopian future.