Book review: Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

5 out of 5 stars forĀ 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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