Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

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Station Eleven is a post-apocalyptic novel with a bit of a difference. Like The Stand without all the fantasy and horror (though it’s creepy in places) Station Eleven focuses on the survival of culture after a mass flu that wipes out 99% of the world’s population. It begins with the death on stage of a famous actor, Arthur Leander, and propels outwards from there, both into the past and the future, following the people connected with Arthur and how cultural memory lives on even under extreme circumstances. There’s a varied cast and an interestingly realistic take on an end-of-the-world scenario.

In the past we follow Arthur and his first wife, Miranda, the creator of comic book Dr. Eleven, something that resonates throughout the story and affects characters before the world ends and after. In the present/immediate aftermath is Jeevan, a paparazzo turned paramedic who is connected – sometimes conveniently – to Arthur Leander throughout his life. As Jeevan is given an early indication of how bad the flu is he hoards himself and his brother up in their apartment and we get to witness much of the end-world from his point of view. There is another character who experiences the end of civilisation in a very different fashion to Jeevan later in the book – saying who would be verging on spoilers – but this section was easily my favourite in the book. Twenty years in the future we follow Kirsten Raymonde and the Traveling Symphony, a band of musicians and actors who travel parts of North America. Theirs is the storyline that is returned to the most regularly and perhaps that with what could most realistically be called a ‘plot’. They become tangled with a group of evangelicals led by a man who calls himself the ‘Prophet’.

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The most unusual aspect of this book is not really its realistic take on the end of the world (which is very well done) but its odd structure, jumping between past/present/future at fairly random moments to fill in a complete picture of what connects all of the characters. I’m a bit torn on whether I felt this worked. There’s a bit of a disconnect between the reader and the characters at times, with Leander and Kirsten being our de-facto main characters, and yet neither are particularly likeable or easy to relate to. Jeevan, who is introduced first, is one of our main point of views for the world as it ends, and yet he is really no more than a convenient cipher, helping with exposition and being there when the author needs him to be. It’s a shame because the sections set during the flu crisis and its immediate aftermath, as society breaks down, are by far the most interesting.

The thematic idea behind the book is mostly well realised if a bit tenuous, hanging on this comic that survives the end-times as well as the memory of a womanising actor who we’re supposed to empathise with. It’s interesting and does act well as a link between the characters, especially as the book progresses and their relationships become clearer between each time period, but at times it felt a bit tagged on with the comic in particular being a little on the nose with regards to how it acts as a metaphor for the events in the lives of the main characters.

But I did enjoy Station Eleven, despite my reservations. It’s an admirable experiment at doing something a bit different in a post-apocalyptic novel when they’re seemingly everywhere at the moment. A bit slow at times and it doesn’t read as seamless as is perhaps intended, but Station Eleven is interesting, at times quite wonderful, and without doubt unique.

3 thoughts on “Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel”

  1. Interesting. The jumping timelines can go either way for me. I think it enhanced The String Diaries, but I know I’ve seen it go horribly wrong. It’s a tricky thing to do well (like so many things). Definitely sounds worth a read.

    1. It’s a strange one to describe as the timelines aren’t really flagged up (like there aren’t chapter headings with dates or anything). It’s a bit more random and more focused on showing links between characters.

      Still haven’t gotten round to The String Diaries. How was it?

      1. I enjoyed it! Was a bit different,not perfect (a bit more internal dialog than I cared for), but tense and dark and the multiple timelines were used to create a mystery for the reader (the characters knew exactly what was going on, but the reader had to puzzle it together with what they were given.

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