Book Review, Canadian, Contemporary, Dystopia, Emily St John Mandel, Fiction, Post-Apocalyptic

Thoughts: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

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Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

Station Eleven begins, ironically and appropriately, in a theater with a staging of William Shakespeare’s King Lear. Three of the novel’s recurring characters are first encountered in this opening scene, a moment in time that will be revisited throughout the novel. As the pages unfold, and the Traveling Symphony makes its way through a dangerous Midwestern landscape, ancient literature—from the Bible to Shakespeare—will become central in rebuilding culture and society in a drastically altered world .

Arthur Leander, Jeevan Chaudhary, and Kirsten Raymonde: three strange and special lives destined to intersect as one world ends and another begins. Over the course of decades, in the old, pre-plague world and the new world of survivors, the lives of these few characters, as well as the dark prophet child who grows up to be more sociopath than saint, begin to reflect the power, the beauty, the fear, the ability, the evils, and the resilience of the human spirit.  

Although this story cannot exist without its characters, I found many of them rather superficial throughout most of the book. This may be because the reader’s attention is drawn between the development of the characters and the effects of the apocalyptic tragedy; it may also be a result of the number of characters; it could be because of the multiple perspectives or the dance with time and numerous settings. Suffice to say, it’s a complex world and this often results in a certain distance between reader and characters. That being said, as the story unfolds and the many characters’ backgrounds begin to come together and to interact more closely, and more clearly, the dual worlds (before and after) and major conflicts (good and evil) begin to envelop the characters, resulting in a page-turning climax that makes any earlier lack seem basically innocuous.

One of the best things Station Eleven has going for it is its style and language. This is a distinctly literary work, more reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984 and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale than the majority of contemporary dystopian fiction. The prose style and complexity are, quite frankly, a welcome breath of fresh air in a rather over-saturated and underwhelming genre.

So, do you want to be scared out of your mind in a paradoxically beautiful way? Okay, then: read Station Eleven. The balance of realistic and futuristic themes, art and politics, society and wilderness, all work together in bizarre and unexpected ways. St. John Mandel’s talents are expressed in the crafting of each of these individual elements, but most of all in her construction of a symphony that effectively highlights each of her strengths without allowing one or the other to overshadow or outperform the rest. Those expecting a traditional post-apocalyptic novel may be disappointed, but those open to experiencing the dystopian genre in a somewhat softer, more realistic, and character-centered (rather than event-centered) way will be pleasantly surprised.

The fluidity of time, the focus on how individuals cope with the change and how larger society functions, how history begins to be rewritten following a worldwide calamity, are elements which coalesce to form a fresh, unique, and disturbingly thought-provoking new work in an age-old and often derivative genre.  

Suggested Reading For:

Age Level: YA+ (skewed toward adult)

Interest: Dystopia, Apocalyptic, Post-Apocalyptic, Literary.

Notable Quotes:

“Dear friends, I find myself immeasurably weary and I have gone to rest in the forest.”

“First we only want to be seen, but once we’re seen, that’s not enough anymore. After that, we want to be remembered.” 

“No one ever thinks they’re awful, even people who really actually are. It’s some sort of survival mechanism.” 

“She had never entirely let go of the notion that if she reached far enough with her thoughts she might find someone waiting, that if two people were to cast their thoughts outward at the same moment they might somehow meet in the middle.” 

“If your soul left this earth I would follow and find you.”

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15 thoughts on “Thoughts: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

      • That’s so true about a lot of weak books getting published/praised because they fit a trend. It’s like if anything hints at being a “psychological thriller,” it gets published and people rush out to buy it, too.
        I’ll admit that I stayed away from dystopian novels until I finally read The Handmaids Tale this summer. I really could have used that in my thesis. I don’t know how I made it all the way through school without reading it. Since then, I’ve been devouring Atwood, but I was still hesitant to pick up Station Eleven, but I am glad I did. I’m interested to go back and read some of Mandel’s earlier work now!

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  1. One of the best things Station Eleven has going for it is its style and language. This is a distinctly literary work, more reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984 and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale than the majority of contemporary dystopian fiction. The prose style and complexity are, quite frankly, a welcome breath of fresh air in a rather over-saturated and underwhelming genre.

    I’m so happy to hear this. I love dystopian fiction, but I agree that most of the recent offerings have been underwhelming at best, particularly those in the YA category. (I’m also just not as into YA as a lot of people are, but still.) I’m really excited to read this one, and I’m glad you liked it!

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  2. I loved this book, for the quality of its writing and the interlocking stories. I also liked that we learn as much about lives of the characters before the apocalypse as in the aftermath.

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  3. Pingback: Station Ten and One Half | Care's Online Book Club

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