Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

station elevenSoapy…

🙂 🙂 🙂

A particularly virulent strain of flu wipes out the population of most of the world within a few weeks. This is the story of before that event and twenty years after it.

Just before the flu struck, famous actor Arthur Leander died of a heart attack during a performance of King Lear. The story is based around him and the people who were connected with him – either family, friends or people who were in the theatre that night. The future story has as its main character, Kristen – a child actress in Lear, now a young woman travelling with a band of fellow actors and musicians bringing Shakespeare to the small communities of survivors that have sprung up since the apocalypse. The past story (which is set in our present) revolves around Arthur and his failed marriages.

I’m afraid I found this a book of two halves. The post-apocalyptic portion is fairly interesting, although the ‘world’ seems pretty under-developed. Mandel has decided to go with a reasonably hopeful outlook where people start to form little communities, and work in co-operation with each other. She spoils this a little by throwing in the old cliché of a fake ‘messiah’ attracting followers who then go around terrorising the peaceful folk. Her main point in this section is that there is a need to feed the mind and soul as much as the body, and though she starts out well with the Shakespearian element, she doesn’t really follow through. My view may be being influenced by the fact that I am a dedicated fan of Star Trek – by using a quote from Voyager, ‘Survival is insufficient’, she invited comparison; and, unfortunately for my feelings about the book, I feel that the episode the line comes from says considerably more about connectedness and individuality than this does. However the writing is good, and I feel this section works overall.

Emily St John Mandel
Emily St John Mandel

The ‘before the virus’ section, on the other hand, is tedious in the extreme. Why she chose to set this around the fake world of a Hollywood actor beats me, since all it does is ensure that it has no comparison to the lives of the majority of her readership. It reads like a long and rather dull daytime soap, as Arthur makes his way through three broken marriages, and since we know in advance that most of the people in this section die in the virus it’s hard to get up much emotional investment. I quickly found I was enduring rather than enjoying these lengthy passages. If the intention was to highlight differences between ‘before’ and ‘after’, I feel it would have been better to choose a more average life in the ‘before’ part. And, for the sake of keeping it interesting, it would have been better not to tell the reader the fate of the characters at the beginning.

To be honest, I’m at a bit of a loss as to why this book is garnering so many rave reviews. While the ‘after’ bit is quite well written, enough to make me interested to see how Mandel develops in the future, it doesn’t really stand comparison to the best of dystopian fiction, and the ‘before’ section pulls it right down. A disappointing read in the end, perhaps because my expectations were too high.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Pan MacMillan.

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53 thoughts on “Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

  1. I’m not drawn to dystopian stuff generally, but I am curious about this book just because I’ve seen it pop up on so many best-books lists. Sorry it didn’t work for you: onward!

    • I’m not particularly either, though I seem to have read quite a few of them recently. But that might be partly why my view of this one isn’t as positive as other people’s – making comparisons. Onward, indeed!

  2. FictionFan – Thanks as ever for your candor. It means a lot. I’m not usually one for post-apocalyptic fiction, although I did think the premise of this – a Shakespeare troupe – was interesting. Sorry to hear that you didn’t find the rest of the book compelling. Hmmm……not sure now what I’ll do.

    • Yes, the Shakespeare thing interested me, but I didn’t feel she did much with it really. It’s certainly not as bleak and hopeless as a lot of dystopian stuff though. And though there are other puzzled reviewers on Amazon, it’s still picking up loads of 5-star reviews. Hmm…

  3. Fascinating – yours is one of the first voices to not be thoroughly enthused by this. But at the same time yours is a voice I trust… I’ve kept putting it off, because there is just too much buzz around it at the moment. Does that mean that my expectations are building up? Hmmm, not sure.

    • I know – nearly every blog review I’ve seen has been raving about it. The only thing I can think is that the hype has drawn in lots of people who don’t normally read dystopian stuff, so it maybe feels fresher and more original to them than it does to me. There’s no doubt I’m in a minority on this one – heigh-ho! Not the first time, and probably not the last…

  4. Hmm. Dystopian tales are not really my thing as a general rule – although I read a book called ‘Z For Zachariah’ in school which I remember really enjoying. The bit about the actor dying on stage reminded me of an interesting news article last week – Brian Blessed collaposed onstage (whilst playing King Lear, I am sure! Certainly one of the Bard’s plays, anyway) but carried on once he came round. I love Brian Blessed and this review has made my day, if only to bring to mind my great, hairy hero. But anyway. I suspect the flu was this man-flu that my gentlemen friends keep banging on about… (not gentlemen friends in THAT respect, obviously).

    • I didn’t hear that about Brian Blessed – oh, I hope he’s OK again now! I’ve had a major soft spot for him every since ‘Flash is Alive!!!’ I seem to have been reading quite a lot of dystopian stuff recently, though it’s not really my thing either – keep getting sucked in by hype. Hehe! Man-flu is a dreadful disease, isn’t it? Poor little dears – how they suffer! Amazing they have courage to get through it…

  5. This is sorta funny, since we were just having speaks about a virus. And no wonder you said you wouldn’t like a post apocalyptic world! And I admit, this one might have been boring, too. I suppose the place not to be is Hollywood. Imagine being in a desert. If it is one, I can’t remember.

    Great review, though. So, I’m guessing she’s British?

    • Yes, I seem to have read so many books recently about viruses that end the world that I get scared every time someone coughs! It was a bit dull – I really like my survivors to suffer more… *cackles* Only the actor was in Hollywood though – the rest were somewhere up around the Great Lakes – can’t really remember where, which is a worry…

      Thank you! *smiles bigly* No, Canadian, I think. I did feel like telling her to go get her own playwright…

      • *laughs* Suffering is indeed more interesting. I’ll give you that. But, young lady, you must control your killing instincts! Ooo, they might have been in PA, then. Lake Erie, maybe.

        I may sound silly, but what would she do with one of those?

        • I used to be a peaceful person till you turned me into a warrior! I don’t know – my geography is awful, but I think it might have been further west…or maybe north…

          Instead of stealing a British one, I mean. (I’m sorry I’m not making much sense – I can’t even begin to explain how sleep deprived I am. That’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it!)

          • Well, the change is probably for the better. But I bet you were always a warrior! *laughs* Or south or east.

            Can’t you record the Tennis and watch it later? You know, when football games are on late, I just go to bed. Next day, the professor logs onto the website, and I know…bam! Who won and who lost.

    • Yes, I was disappointed too. I wondered if my view was coloured by having read several dystopian novels recently and therefore making comparisons. And the Shakespeare thing wasn’t as well developed as I’d hoped… Oh well, onwards and upwards!

  6. Is there no escape from Star Trek?? I love a dystopia, and the Shakespearean element is an interesting twist. It is a shame that the book hasn’t followed through on this. I look forward to finding that quote in my future Star Trek adventures though!

    • It’s a plot to turn you into a fan! Soon you too will be sad enough to recognise which episode a quote comes from…

      Yes, I had high hopes of the Shakespeare element but she could have done so much more with it, I felt. Like Star Trek does… 😉

  7. I think I’ve really done dystopia, and this one doesn’t sound as if its got anything new to say. When I add that I hate books that centre on people who make a profession out of being disfunctional, you will spot that I won’t be rushing out to buy this one – not in this snow anyway, which makes the world look post – apocalyptic!

    • I won’t be rushing to encourage you either – I thought the hopeful aspect was fairly fresh, but the whole thing just didn’t really come together. Ah, well! Is your snow lying then? It keeps snowing here, but so far it’s not lying. But I’ve stocked up on the essentials of life just in case – cat food and chocolate…

  8. I’m curious about this book, mainly because there seems to have been a lot of hype around it. I knew very little about it before reading your review, and I’m not so sure if it’s my kind of thing. I have to admit, the section with the Hollywood actor doesn’t really appeal. Thanks for your honest review!

  9. Thank you for confirming that I’m not missing out by not reading this one which to be honest didn’t really appeal to me anyway! When I saw you’d reviewed it I hoped for a scathing review and whilst it wasn’t as cutting as some that you’ve written the line “It reads like a long and rather dull daytime soap” is up there with some of my favourites!!

    • Haha! I was trying to be semi-kind because I’d got it in my head she was a debut author, but it seems she’s not! A pity, because secretly I can confirm that this was draft 2 of the review – the first one was way too brutal and ended up on the cutting-room floor…! 😉

  10. Your review neatly summarizes why I have been slow to start reading this one. Am glad you make a distinction between the before/after sections. If the beginning is too tedious, I now know to skip ahead to the slightly better bit.

    In the meantime, I’m loving the Douglas Brodie books! They’re darker than I expected, but very well done so far!

  11. I had this book earmarked to be read because of all the reviews its been getting but I’ll be giving it a miss because, like you, I don’t think I’d enjoy all the tedious sounding pre story stuff. Thanks for saving me a whole lot of time!

      • Maybe people find it harder to say they didn’t like a book when everybody else seems to like it?? There might be a sociology experiment in there somewhere 😉 But as someone else pointed out, we can always count on you to tell it like it is!

  12. If you and Raven Crime didn’t enjoy this, I think I’ll resist the hype on this one. It seems like every book right now is either dystopian or “domestic noir”. Generally I give sci-fi type stuff a bit of a body swerve anyway…So good to know we can always rely on you for a good honest review, FF!

    • Thank you! 🙂 I know – it annoys me the way books go in waves like that. The first one feels fresh and interesting, but by the sixth it all starts to feel like you’re just reading the same book over and over. Only the best of them really have a chance of standing out after a while…

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