Review – Station Eleven by Emily StJohn Mandel

By | September 13, 2014

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. 

This book has been the subject of an amazingly successful marketing campaign by Picador – if you’re on Twitter with a book-related feed, you really can’t get away from it.  When a book has that level of pre-release publicity, there’s always the fear it won’t live up to the hype.  But this book – this book is simply wonderful.

The book does reference Justin Cronin’s The Passage – it’s similarly set in a post apocalyptic world, it’s just as complex and character driven (but a lot shorter…).  I’d like to say that if you liked that one you’ll love this one – but they are very different reads.  The way in which it opens is similar in terms of style – almost like the best of Stephen King, we hear about the beginnings of the spread of the virus through the eyes of Jeevan, a paramedic who tries to help Arthur Leander when he collapses on stage during a performance of King Lear, and who then walks through the snow to the home of his disabled brother with five trolleys full of essentials.  

Arthur Leander is a primary focus of the book – all the main characters link to him in some way, and the narrative moves backwards and forwards through time, from Arthur’s early acting career, through his three marriages, and then to twenty years after life on earth has been changed beyond recognition.  Kirsten, a child actor in the performance of King Lear, reappears with the Travelling Symphony, her most treasured possession the two proof copies of the comic book Station Eleven given to her by Arthur.  Clark, Arthur’s closest friend, finds himself running the Museum of Civilisation devoted to the old world – twenty years on, there are people who don’t remember a world with mobile communications, computer technology or even electricity and running water. 

There are a number of things that set this novel apart.  There’s the structure – while it can be a wrench to sometimes leave the post apocalyptic world, the returns to significant points in Arthur’s life are quite perfectly woven into the narrative.  The writing is thoroughly beautiful – there are images here that will never leave you.  It is quite perfectly paced – I’d urge everyone to read it in a single sitting to appreciate the symphony of the whole experience.  The author’s imagination is truly exceptional – the whole concept behind the references to Station Eleven, the vivid drawing of life at the airport in Severn City, the fascinating image of the Travelling Symphony and their performances of Shakespeare.  The world she creates is totally believable and you feel throughout that this is a scenario that really could happen.

This is such a difficult book to review – it’s very complex but deceptively simple. The story that drives the book forward is totally gripping, but it also twists and turns in a way that’s thoroughly fascinating. Never mind reading my review – this is a book you need to experience to appreciate how thoroughly wonderful it is.

(I know other friends have struggled – as I have – and feel they’ve fallen short on doing this book full justice, but some have made a far better job of it than me.  You’ll find a great review on Random Things Through My Letterbox by Anne, and another really excellent one by Pam on Pamreader.)

Station Eleven was published by Picador on 10 September.  Mine was an e-copy, with thanks to netgalley and the publishers.

Emily St. John Mandel was born and raised on the west coast of British Columbia, Canada. She studied contemporary dance at the School of Toronto Dance Theatre and lived briefly in Montreal before relocating to New York. 

Station Eleven is her fourth novel.  All three of her previous novels—Last Night in Montreal, The Singer’s Gun, and The Lola Quartet—were Indie Next Picks, and The Singer’s Gun was the 2014 winner of the Prix Mystere de la Critique in France. Her short fiction and essays have been anthologized in numerous collections, including Best American Mystery Stories 2013. She is a staff writer for The Millions. She lives in New York City with her husband. 

2 thoughts on “Review – Station Eleven by Emily StJohn Mandel

  1. Joan Hill

    I'm 20% through this one and, although I'm finding it a bit of an enigma, I'm going to persevere with it. Perhaps I'll also hear fireworks. I hope so!

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