Review. Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

All things popular come in waves. Remember Pokémon? In the wake of its popularity we got Digimon, Yu-Gi-Oh! and whatnot. With books it’s very much the same. Twilight spawned libraries full of Vampire soft-porn and at the moment it seems that (High) Fantasy is the latest craze. Not so long ago, however, after The Hunger Games slayed – pun intended – every other genre out there, dystopian literature was everywhere you looked. Now that everyone is fed up with the same concept being rehashed time and time again, and the world has moved on to something new, it pays to put a new twist on the dystopian genre. Station Eleven is such a book. Dystopian to the core, but now that we have all moved on from the genre, its take on it is refreshing.
I read this one as part of the BookTubeSFF Awards readalongs, and its nomination was well deserved.

The Georgia Flu explodes over the surface of the earth like a neutron bomb.
News reports put the mortality rate at over 99%.
Civilization has crumbled.
A band of actors and musicians called the Travelling Symphony move through their territories performing concerts and Shakespeare to the settlements that have grown up there. Twenty years after the pandemic, life feels relatively safe. But now a new danger looms, and he threatens the hopeful world every survivor has tried to rebuild.
Moving backwards and forwards in time, from the glittering years just before the collapse to the strange and altered world that exists twenty years after, Station Eleven charts the unexpected twists of fate that connect six people: famous actor Arthur Leander; Jeevan – warned about the flu just in time; Arthur’s first wife Miranda; Arthur’s oldest friend Clark; Kirsten, a young actress with the Travelling Symphony; and the mysterious and self-proclaimed ‘prophet’.

When you read this book, you’ll soon discover that a lot of thought has gone into the creation of it. The story is not a straightforward one with a definite beginning and end, but the narrative is rather like an ocean. You just get dropped in somewhere and you let the waves carry you back and forth. Whether or not you’ll reach the shore is of no importance. It’s the journey that matters, not the destination.
Rather than the fight, struggle and rebellion a lot of other dystopian novels portray, Station Eleven shows the before and after of a global pandemic. We see the characters when life was good, we see them dealing with chaos, fear and confusion and we see them trying to build something from the ashes of what once was. This stands in contrast with the dystopians from yesteryear, brimming with action and tension. Here, rather, we get the story of our neighbour. And while he is your everyday guy, he was fortunate enough to survive.
from the ashes of what once was
Emily St. John Mandel does not tell a linear story, but goes back and forth, switching between characters, time and place. While it does not have a definite plot, the narrative is captivating and shows us how our lives interconnect. How we reach, touch and move others through who we are, what we do. At the centre of it all is art, and the novel shows how art is what makes humanity.. It survives, inspires and there is a clear contrast with the people in the town where art is not welcome. If there is another something this novel teaches us, it is that Shakespeare always will be.
As strong as the narrative may be, the characters fell flat for me. Or let me rephrase that. I just couldn’t get a connection. The story was too fragmented to make me want to read about a certain character, it’s a collection of glimpses from past and present, switching perspectives a lot, and it made it hard to connect, even though I liked them. The cast is also very mundane. They are no heroes and there survival is mere luck rather than being the victor in an arena or what else. This novel did not need heroic characters, cause it works as it is, but they are far from remarkable. Now, a month after reading it, I refer to them as ‘the gay guy’, ‘the pregnant lady’, ‘the nutcase’ and ‘the artist with the jealous boyfriend’. The only name I do remember is Arthur, because everything leads back to him..
Shakespeare always will be
It will come as no surprise, but the writing in itself was also very good, considering the narrative. With a structure like that, you can easily lose your audience, but St. John Mandel can write a compelling story and provide beautiful imagery, even if a bit bleak. Something I really appreciated was how she took her writing a step further and questioned the consequences of her own world. Language is a living entity and is a sign of the times. As such, it was great to read how our language was questioned by the characters, how a lot of what we consider mundane and take for granted, is captured by her use of the language.

In conclusion, I can only suggest you give Station Eleven a try. It’s something very different from the actionpacked dystopian novels and it gives plenty food for thought.

★ ★ ★

If this has sparked your interest and you fancy a read, buy it here!

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