Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, is a novel revolving around an apocalyptic flu epidemic and follows a series of interconnecting characters. These characters are all connected by a famous Hollywood star, Arthur Leander, who dies of a heart attack during a stage production of King Lear in Toronto immediately before the flu outbreak starts. Primarily, the story takes place 20 years after the epidemic, following 28 year old Kirsten (a child actor on stage with Arthur when he died) and the group she travels with, ‘The Travelling Symphony,’ a caravan of actors and musicians who travel between the towns and settlements of the new world performing music and Shakespeare. However, the story also jumps non-chronologically between the lives of Arthur, his first ex-wife Miranda, his friend Clark, and the man who performed CPR on him on stage, Jeevan; focusing on their lives before, during, and after the outbreak. The way the story changes and develops is so intriguing and gripping that I am not going to spoil any of it in this review, as I didn’t know anything about it going in and it added to the experience. I will say though that this novel feels like it should be a classic, it’s beautifully written, it leaves you thinking about what it’s trying to say long after you’ve finished reading, and I found it very hard to put it down.
The novel’s tone is hard to pin down, as it manages to trigger multiple emotions from you throughout. It is mostly melancholic but also has moments of joy and a general feeling of hope. As the focus jumps from the 20-year-old wasteland to our modern day it plays on our understanding of the future of these characters. You know that their future is one of pain and death, and Mandel uses this dramatic irony to great effect as you really come to understand the characters and the knowledge of their future is quite upsetting.
You can tell Mandel cares about the characters she creates as she writes them with obvious passion. She beautifully describes their thoughts and feelings, giving us a true insight into their lives. There are no stereotypes or one-dimensional characters, as they each have flaws, fears, hopes and strengths that make them feel real. I was attached to each of the focal characters due to how real they were, I felt like I knew them and there wasn’t one who disliked or didn’t want to find out more about. A fascinating portrayal of the lives of fame, and how it can change a person, is shown through Arthur and Miranda, while the lives of more ordinary people, and how they must adjust to life without work or technology, is explored through Jeevan and Clark. Whereas Kirsten, who was only 8 when the world ended, shows us the effect growing up in a world without luxuries can affect your understanding and appreciation. The side characters were also very intriguing.
Mandel focuses greatly on atmosphere, in both the post-apocalyptic and present day worlds. She describes everything about the abandoned world beautifully, making it feel serene and pretty one moment, isolated and harsh the next. However, there is an overall message of valuing life. The motto of ‘The Traveling Symphony’ is “because survival is insufficient,” and this statement really sums up the feel of the novel. The Symphony travel around performing Shakespeare to bring some beauty into the world and help give people a reason to live, and that makes this story quite novel, as it’s not just characters struggling to survive in a wasteland, which has been done hundreds of times, but is also about them trying to find happiness in the new world they’ve ended up in.
The novel seems to be more about the atmosphere and tone than about the actual events of the story, as not a lot happens and there are hardly any moments of action or intensity. There are no raiders or things of that nature that you might expect to see in a book like this, but is instead more about tension and world building. It was hard to tell where the story was heading, the end goal not becoming apparent until you’re there, but this didn’t take away from the fascinating experience of seeing everything steadily tie itself together and reach a conclusion.
Station Eleven is a must read Novel for anyone and the more I think about it the better it becomes. A beautifully written book with a fantastic description that creates a great mixture of tone. The characters were my favourite thing about it.
P.S I know I haven’t done many book reviews but I’ve noticed I’ve given all of them high scores. I find it hard to give books a number rating for some reason. I might scrap the number rating, at least for books, but for now this is apparently my lowest scoring book even though it’s amazing! I think it’s because Ready Player One and World War Z gave me a rush of excitement while reading it and I talked about them to people for ages afterward, whereas this was more of a ‘sit and think about it’ type of book, which was still great, just different.