Book review: Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

5 out of 5 stars for Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.


Station Eleven

“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 Travelling 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.”

(Read more here.)


Station Eleven is an engaging novel that begins with a pandemic and ends with tenuous, uncertain survival. Its many good qualities include thorough characterisation, an intriguing plot, and the total avoidance of “strong” characters with little recogisable humanity and a plethora of unexplained skills. Often classed as sci-fi, I would hesitate to restrain it to one genre, as it is an assured and thoroughly enjoyable novel that should appeal to any reader with at least a passing interest in fiction that assesses the emotional complexity of the average human being, while presenting an equally intriguing plot. It also manages to avoid many of the stereotypes that science fiction is unfortunately prone to.

As for me, I loved it.

Throughout Station Eleven, there is a definite sense of inescapable danger, and of looming jeopardy. At the beginning, this comes from the Georgia Flu, undoubtedly the greatest immediate threat to the survival of Station Eleven’s characters, and later in the narrative it is the great unknown of life after the apocalypse that takes that dubious mantle. The surviving characters have little to nothing to rely on, and their experiences of a world prior to the arrival of the Georgia Flu are not much help at all. It is a fact of life for the survivors of the Georgia Flu that the changed world is profoundly unsafe, and for the reader, it is impossible not to appreciate the inherent vulnerability of Station Eleven’s characters.

This gives Station Eleven an impressive sense of realism. Intuitively, a post-apocalyptic environment is likely to be dangerous, at the very least because it is entirely unknown, a situation that no character could adequately have prepared for. With unpredictable challenges likely to be lurking around every corner, those that inhabit the changed world are placed in a difficult – and often dangerous – position.

I particularly enjoyed the way that Mandel establishes the clear difference between the characters that experienced and can remember life before the Georgia Flu, and those that cannot. The decisions made and actions taken by the first group are acknowledged to have been variously influenced by their memories and knowledge of the pre-Georgia Flu world, while the latter group call upon more recent experiences, of something and somewhere entirely different. This manifests in a range of situations,and more widely in their understanding of morality, and how they justify their behaviour.

The Georgia Flu is a powerful catalyst for Mandel’s equally powerful characterisation. Its decimation of the population brings about widespread destruction – including of the basic urban infrastructure on which many of Station Eleven’s characters are used to – and inevitably brings about irrevocable change, as a result of which ongoing survival is often uncertain at best, and the survivors left damaged if not crippled by loss. Their desperate situation often makes them unpredictable, wary of strangers and understandably hostile to the unfamiliar. The survival of each day requires, as well as skill and determination, a kind of ruthlessness that not all of Station Eleven’s characters are willing to contemplate, let alone utilise. The varying reactions to the situation and its inherent difficulties reveal the innermost foundations of each character’s personality, by establishing their strengths and weaknesses and revealing the preconceptions that ultimately give rise to their behaviour. The result is a richly detailed, in-depth characterisation.

The characters that do not endure the same tests are no less richly depicted. Station Eleven’s narrative is non-linear, and by moving back and forth in time across the lives of her characters, and between life before and after the arrival of the Georgia Flu, Mandel brings to the reader’s attention events that take place across the full span of Station Eleven’s timeline, using examples of past behaviour to clarify future events and decisions, establish the history and often-complicated nature of the relationships alluded to throughout, and to give some indication as to the likely motivational factors behind a range of actions.

My favourite characters in Station Eleven are those that comprise the Travelling Symphony, a theatrical troupe that travel to bring something more than just plain survival to the friendlier, or at least civil, communities. (Usually in the form of Shakespeare.) The manner by which the musicians identify one another primarily by instrument is a wonderful detail, and the petty disagreements that arise within the group even under – and often because of – the severe circumstances, are inarguably authentic. Station Eleven’s characters are so richly depicted and characterised that they genuinely resemble real people, lending the narrative weight and pathos.

Music and theatre are not fresh innovations brought into the post-Georgia Flu world, and “musician” and “actor” are not new, post-apocalypse occupations. A holdover from before the arrival of the Georgia Flu, the fact that they remain constantly in use despite having no practical application to immediate survival shows that Mandel’s characters retain a very human desire for more than just the basic practicalities, reiterating the lasting complexity and depth of Mandel’s characterisation, and the realism central to Station Eleven. Her characters are irrevocably changed by their experiences, but they do not become unthinking and inhuman, deprived of identifiable humanity.

One of my favourite moments in Station Eleven is when Clark is told that his client is “sleepwalking”. Due to a range of factors, he has found himself in a particular occupation, one that he has come to realise that he doesn’t much care for. But while he might be interested in taking a different path, his responsibilities ensure that he considers taking a risk by leaving his stable career to be out of the question. Thus, dissatisfied, he works mechanically, with neither interest or passion. He sleepwalks. This is one of my favourite moments because it is so realistic, a state of affairs that many of us can relate to, and because it emphasises the often-painful relationship between dreams and reality in the novel as a whole. A world in which an infectious disease swiftly turns into an unstoppable pandemic that wipes out 99.9% of the population is not a world of happy endings, or a world in which dreams come true.

These are just a few of the many reasons why I enjoyed reading Station Eleven, and why I would definitely recommend it, even to readers who wouldn’t normally try anything like this. It has many excellent qualities, and on top of an engaging, well-structured and nicely-paced plot, it is insightful and empathetic, exploring the often-unpleasant depths and incongruities of the human condition in a manner that is assured and not without sympathy, and that contributes to, rather than detracting from, the plot. With an emphasis on character, it takes a refreshingly human-centric approach to its premise.

I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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TV Review – Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (2016)

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Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (2016) follows the adventures (and misadventures, of which there are no small number) of Dirk Gently, a Detective with a sunny disposition, a dubious relationship with the unwelcoming CIA, and an impressive number of colourful leather jackets. In the first episode, he obtains an assistant and (briefly) a kitten, and the subsequent instalments detail the ever widening and bewildering parameters of his investigation, which includes, among other things, abduction, murder, body swapping, time travel, and a magic light bulb. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency  is unpredictable, startlingly clever and thoroughly bizarre. This review will touch on a couple of reasons as to why it is also compelling TV.

Dirk Gently, the titular character, neglects to utilise any of the recognisable or expected methods by which cases are ordinarily investigated, instead postulating an approach with greater scope, undeniable freedom, and the regular employment of a range of questionable – though exciting – vehicles. He works on the basis of mostly unexplained knowledge backed up by profound enthusiasm (and the frequent repetition of “everything is connected”) and Todd, his assistant, initially does little more than get carried along for the frequently baffling ride.

Exceedingly well depicted and wonderfully written, Dirk Gently’s character arc is sympathetic and engaging, all the more so for the fact that it is not entirely – or even predominantly – explained in full. His depiction is not without depth and reasonable variation, for he is by turns knowledgeable and unaware, surrounded by friends and utterly alone,  confident and painfully uncertain, but the viewer is provided with only the occasional indication as to what he might have experienced prior to his current case. The gaps, however, encourage a sense of mystery rather than irritation. As answers are provided for other questions throughout the show, there is arguably some sense that this will, too, eventually be answered in full. The character of Dirk Gently is not without believable flaws, and he freely admits to a host of mistakes.

The other characters are equally interesting and experience considerable development, above and beyond the aforementioned plot. Amanda Brotzman suffers a disease that causes painful hallucinations, and at the beginning of the series is housebound. By the point of the finale, however, she has gained in confidence and certainty, leaves the house regularly, and lives her life on her own terms – often unapologetically, but always with compassion, and a thorough understanding of the less laudable quirks of human nature. Her depiction gains greater impact in that while she is frequently shown to suffer often from her particularly debilitating illness, she is also in possession of dependable insight and arguably the most reasonable perspective of all the characters in the show. There is no indication that her illness renders her incapable in any conceivable way, and no suggestion that the other characters even consider that to be a possibility, which too often transpires on other shows.

Every character in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is vital to the narrative, and as richly defined and vibrantly depicted as the next, whether they appear for just a handful of minutes, or in every single episode.

It is around the murder of Patrick Spring and the abduction of his daughter Lydia that the plot predominantly circulates, in the context of which the various characters often clash, frequently at length, and usually in the spirit of unutterable confusion and a vague sense of established and necessary opposition. Each episode works inevitably towards the possibility of the case being solved, and this lends a wide-reaching, cohesive structure to a show in possession of no small amount of increasingly incongruous content, and a reasonable if not entirely convincing reassurance that the weirdness does not in fact exist without cause. It may just be that the cause has yet to sidle into view.

Finally, while the specifics of the plot are no small cause for concern (that poor, tiny, defenceless kitten), and there are no few scenes that border upon the heart wrenching or at the very least decidedly painful, there are also moments of genuine happiness, good fun, and undeniable humour. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is neither relentlessly dark nor cheerfully light-hearted, but instead, like the plot and characters, contains the good, the bad, and the undeniable depth and surety of excellent storytelling.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is an brilliant show with strong writing, intriguing and diverse characters, and a narrative that is always peculiar and never tediously predictable. It is unique in its structure and extremely well crafted, and I would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone with a particular interest in the weird, the wonderful and the ceaselessly wacky, or with an admitted preference for people in leather jackets. It’s almost impossible to categorise this show with any certainty, other than in the realm of sci-fi, but wherever it belongs, it should be recognised to be of very high quality – and exceptionally gifted at generating considerable confusion.

Book Review: The Vagrant – Peter Newman

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Every single review I have read on The Vagrant – and I’ve read a fair few, in the build-up and then the aftermath to my frenzied consumption of the novel – mentions the fact that one of the main characters is a goat. They usually talk at length about this topic, and often in profoundly flowery, descriptive terms. I have to admit, it’s getting a trifle repetitive. Thus, in a rather transparent and totally characteristic attempt to be Different™, I wrote an extremely long review without mentioning the goat once.

I then felt a little guilty, and subsequently revised my tactics.

If someone had told me before I read The Vagrant that I would, on finishing the novel, find myself to be A) unreasonably attached to a goat with an attitude problem and B) quite overcome to discover the sequel to The Vagrant was imminent, I would most likely have laughed, long and hard, coyote-style.

There are no half measures in literature appreciation, but I am an experienced traveller used to these waters.

Goats and children are all very well in theory, but I have found, in my previous reading experiences (she says loftily) that I rarely enjoy it when either children or animals occupy pole position. It reminds me rather too strongly of the books I used to like, and so I would generally prefer them to be kept neatly and appropriately to the well-maintained sidelines, if they are to be included at all.

In The Vagrant, however, they get knee-deep in the action and love every second of it.

But once I had finished The Vagrant, my stance on this matter had changed completely. His characterisation, complex, unassailable, entirely realistic and certainly not without humour, had held me spellbound. It’s engaging, intuitive, and genuinely enjoyable, and Newman does a remarkable job of bringing his world and characters to life.

I quite honestly adored every single line.

Peter Newman’s The Vagrant plays host to an impressive style. Deliberately sparse in some areas – the reader is not, for example, provided with the opportunity to delve into the private thoughts of any of the characters – it is also richly descriptive in others, and rests on a foundation of incredibly strong and furiously detailed world building. Undoubtedly unique in plot, structure and characterisation, The Vagrant therefore has much to commend it, not least of which is Newman’s writing style.

(Pause for breath.)

Granted, the plot is breathtakingly simple. The character of the vagrant is a man who has lost the ability to speak, irrevocably and permanently damaged by what he has endured. Nonetheless, he is a beacon of goodness and strength, though importantly not invulnerability, and has but one purpose: to reach a place named the Shining City, where he might find the one weapon that might turn the tide of the war. He is not without uncertainty, or questions, but he is also steadfast. With him he takes a baby, a pure symbol of innocence in a war-torn world, a goat, and, later, a man named Harm, who is drawn to his presence and never gets around to leaving again.

For all the vagrant’s goodness and gentle humour, the world they live in is far from kind, and his ability to improve it limited at best. Their enemies are far-ranging and powerful, the danger near constant, and his ability to trust even the power of his sword arm is often called into question. There are no easy questions, and certainly no simple answers. As simple as this seems, however, it is crisscrossed with various strands, given a particularly realistic complexity.

They’re a motley, ragtag group, and as such a combination quite common to fantasy novels. It is entirely expected for the hero to be in possession of several locked closets packed with skeletons, and a tragic past is practically required. A diverse team of non-heroes? Well, I’ve certainly heard that before. Off to save the world? Well, of course they are. But Newman’s careful, precise execution of those details is anything but predictable, and never stoops to what is just ‘expected.’ He is the master storyteller, and The Vagrant defies all expectations.

As such, while it may seem to meet the criteria for bog-standard fantasy fare, the exquisite detail with which it has been structured and actualised underlines the fact that it is of a quality that the genre as a whole is often claimed to lack.

The Vagrant is sci-fi/fantasy that is arguably at its best. It redefines conventions, refuses to be shoehorned, constantly poses difficult questions, and most of all brings to life a vision that soars far beyond the mundane without losing sight of what is entirely human. The Vagrant is extraordinarily personal, seated firmly in the human experience, and the detail with which the world is depicted provides stunning context and a rich understanding of the chosen setting.

Unable to gain any firm understanding of what was inside the character’s minds, I initially found it difficult to connect with them. As the novel developed and grew, however, I realised that I didn’t need it. Their personalities were clear, their decisions understandable for a variety of reasons, and, ultimately, the novel isn’t so much sparse as it is concentrated, to the exclusion of the unimportant, extraneous detail. The characters remain in the most significant position, undisturbed by entertaining but mostly unnecessary tangents into air versus land speeds, or yet another predictable variation on ye olde laser gun.

Newman’s characterisation is undoubtedly thorough enough to answer most questions, even without the opportunity to delve further, and his development of their story arcs is flawless. We see each character grow and change, responding and reacting to both internal and external pressures, and we witness improvement and disintegration on all sides. There are heroes and villains, but it is reassuringly not the case that one suffers while the other flourishes.

Lastly, The Vagrant makes explicit reference to wider themes such as morality and diversity, and plays host to a consistent and varied exploration of what humanity can possibly mean when the best practice for surviving the particularly harsh, war-torn world is to be profoundly self-interested.

The Vagrant will undoubtedly appeal to fans of sci-fi/fantasy novels, for it is an especially gifted example, but it shouldn’t be left there. Its good qualities are applicable across the board, and to identify it solely as a ‘good fantasy novel’ would be hopelessly reductive. I didn’t rate it highly out of sentiment, but because I believe it is genuinely fantastic, a compelling, exciting and thought provoking read.

In far less wordy terms: I read it, I loved it, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the next part.

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In the blogger’s spare time, she is:

Reading: One False Move by Harlan Coben

Watching: HBO’s Game of Thrones

Listening to: Cheap Thrills by Sia