Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven coverSTATION ELEVEN is an utterly compelling novel about a dystopian future in which 99% of mankind has expired from a flu pandemic. Rather than focusing on the minutiae of humanity’s collapse – although it’s touched on throughout the text – or exploiting the set-up to recount a tale about mankind’s attempted uprising or resurgence, Emily St. John Mandel turns the spotlight on a core cast of five characters, shifting back and forth, from before the crisis to afterwards, whose sole objective is survival, and retaining mankind’s artistic and cultural achievements. Does Shakespeare matter in a decimated world? What about Beethoven? It’s a fascinating conundrum, deftly touched upon: is the cost of survival worth forsaking our greatest achievements?

In this dystopian world, a hodgepodge of talented survivors travel together as the Traveling Symphony, performing in various settlements, and pillaging vacated homes and dilapidated buildings from the old world for costumes, props, and other useful objects. Early on in STATION ELEVEN, the Traveling Symphony run into a man known as the Prophet, who has warped perceptions of the world, and the crisis that has unfolded. From here, the narrative splits in various directions, delving into the past and present, and exposing the connective tissue between protagonists. One man unites them all: a famous actor named Arthur Leander, whose passing in the opening pages sets the novel’s course.

There’s a captivating lyricism to the Emily St. John Mandel’s prose. It’s the kind of novel you can sink hours into without realizing. While there are fleeting moments of action and violence, STATION ELEVEN is far more focused on its characters, and their development from ‘before’ to ‘after.’ It’s a refreshing take, an enthralling snapshot into a post-apocalyptic mankind. Its glacial pace might not be to everyone’s taste, but STATION ELEVEN is the kind of novel that rewards readers who undertake its journey.

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