Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Today, I’m sharing a review of yet another Book Club selection: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. It won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Novel (among others) in 2015, and it’s making quite the splash in the literary community.

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A synopsis:

An audacious, darkly glittering novel set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse, Station Eleven tells the spellbinding story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.
One snowy night Arthur Leander, a famous actor, has a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo-turned-EMT, is in the audience and leaps to his aid. A child actress named Kirsten Raymonde watches in horror as Jeevan performs CPR, pumping Arthur’s chest as the curtain drops, but Arthur is dead. That same night, as Jeevan walks home from the theater, a terrible flu begins to spread. Hospitals are flooded and Jeevan and his brother barricade themselves inside an apartment, watching out the window as cars clog the highways, gunshots ring out, and life disintegrates around them.
Fifteen years later, Kirsten is an actress with the Traveling Symphony. Together, this small troupe moves between the settlements of an altered world, performing Shakespeare and music for scattered communities of survivors. Written on their caravan, and tattooed on Kirsten’s arm is a line from Star Trek: “Because survival is insufficient.” But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who digs graves for anyone who dares to leave.
Spanning decades, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, this suspenseful, elegiac novel is rife with beauty. As Arthur falls in and out of love, as Jeevan watches the newscasters say their final good-byes, and as Kirsten finds herself caught in the crosshairs of the prophet, we see the strange twists of fate that connect them all. A novel of art, memory, and ambition, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it.

I’m very torn about this book, and I’m giving it 3 ½ stars.

First, let me say: this book is beautifully crafted. We have a number of different narrators spanning decades and yet I always knew exactly what was going on. The books was compelling. The prose is exquisite. But this, like many other books, felt unfinished. Or rather, all but one storyline felt unfinished.

(Spoilers ahead)

The first third of the book works to establish each of these storylines, as well as the pandemic, and the world in which our narrators are living. The storyline of the traveling symphony is very interesting: it touches on everything from cults to killing, relationships to survival. Likewise, the story of the people in the airport is absolutely fascinating. And Jeevan – he holed up with his brother, then set out on his own. All of these storyline seem to end in ellipses. Where is the pressure on Jeevan’s storyline? And does the traveling symphony/airport story really just end with everyone reunited and happy? Really?

At the end of the book, it seemed to me that the whole story was really about Arthur Leander. We get the most background on him, and his story literally ends with his death. St. John Mandel wraps up his life neatly, tying it to the desperation and confusion that comes after the pandemic. The story begins and ends with him.

If the book is, as the synopsis indicates, about art, memory, ambition, the relationships that sustain us, and so on…then it succeeds. It provides snapshots of various points in time. I take issue with its lack of purpose, however, as the stories build up a great deal of background and suspense and then…just…end.

In summary, the book is beautifully written, but tries to accomplish too much and falls short. I wish this weren’t the case, as St. John Mandel is an exceptional writer, but such is the nature of literature.

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