Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

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I feel like I have been having a really good run of books this year, and Station Eleven just continues that run. What a book! If you haven’t read it, I recommend you stop wasting your time on this review and go and read it – it’s all kinds of fantastic.

The book opens in the middle of a performance of King Lear, and until the end of chapter two, you could be forgiven for thinking you are reading a regular novel about a regular world. And then this happens:

“Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.”

It’s not like these words are particularly profound or anything, it’s just that up to this point there has been nothing to point to the fact that in three weeks the world will effectively end. It’s a real BOOM moment in the book and I thought it was handled brilliantly.

What adds to this brilliance is that, despite this line of text, it is still a while before Mandel properly puts us into this new world where people will die while escaping from the city. The way she builds the story and the characters up to the point of collapse makes this book all the much more compelling.

The novel is set in a dystopian present – the world in this book is our world, except for one minor detail, a flu pandemic has wiped out almost the entire population, and with it all of the modern conveniences that we have come to rely on. However, rather than focussing on what was lost, the story centres around people who are trying to create or recapture the beauty of our world. As she says: “What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty.”

One of the really great things about Station Eleven is how real it all felt – how close to possible this world could be (to the point where I am now sent into a mild panic every time I see someone coughing).

This is a genre-busting novel, in that it has clear science fiction/dystopian elements to it, but is undeniably literary fiction. The characters are incredibly well-drawn, and the apocalypse (if that’s what you want to call it) is essentially a convenient backdrop for the development of these characters. I loved every word, every sentence, every chapter. Even though it’s not a particularly long book, it took me a while to read because I deliberately rationed it out so it wouldn’t be over too soon. The writing is beautiful, yet extremely accessible. It’s not a difficult book to read at all, yet its themes and images really stay with you. I can’t think of a single person that I wouldn’t recommend this to.

Have you guys read it? What did you think?

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