Matt’s Reviews: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

book cover: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

  • Publisher:              Random House Audio Publishing Group
  •   Publication date:  09/09/2014
  •   Binding:               Compact Disc
  •   Disks:                  9
  •   ISBN:                  9780553398076
  •   Read by:            Kirsten Potter
  •   Author:              Emily St. John Mandel


Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is the third book by St. John Mandel that I’ve read recently (Sea of Tranquility/The Glass Hotel reviews), and I love the way she uses language and imagery and how she intertwines multiple characters and multiple story lines.  Reading her books feels somehow like floating down a stream that takes different branches; sometimes it is a calm float through the wilderness; sometimes it is a ride down the rapids towards a waterfall.  She takes these different threads of her stories and weaves them together into beautiful fabrics.  It’s like listening to a symphony with multiple movements. Yes, I realize these are mixed metaphors, but it is hard to capture St. John’s writing in any single way.

Station Eleven begins with a performance of King Lear that ends in tragedy when the star of the show, an aging Hollywood movie star, dies of a heart attack on stage.    The original death sets up the tone of the novel that echoes through the rest of the story, or stories.  The folks on stage and their connections form the basis for the story of a virulent flu pandemic that literally causes the fall of civilization.  Twenty years later, a child actor from that performance has joined a traveling music and theater group, regularly performing King Lear and other Shakespearean plays through a post apocalyptic wilderness.  This is only one of many large and small echoes of characters and actions and themes that play throughout the novel.

You might expect a story this big to concentrate on the big impacts, the collapse of the cities, the degradation of the infrastructure, the dystopian chaos, etc.  The book does speak to those, but those are just the scenery, the background, the stage upon which the story is told, not the point of the novel.  The core of this book is the characters and how they interact and how their lives change over time.  St. John Mandel takes us backwards and forwards in time, from well before the pandemic begins to 20+ years later when 99% or more of the population is gone.  It lets us understand these people, their lives and motivation and how they became who they are, and maybe some clues as to where they may be going.  

I mentioned echoes above, and I think that is one of the things I love about the author’s works.  She has patterns and characters that reverberate through her novel, and often across multiple novels, in interesting ways.  The beats of the multiple stories interact in a unique rhythm that you don’t really even understand you are following and then another beat repeats in a new and different, but familiar, way.  It is like listening to a favorite song, or maybe a favorite symphony, but bigger and more personal at the same time. Different movements and characters and story lines and themes swimming around and past and through each other in beautiful ways.

I highly recommend Station Eleven in particular and Emily St. John’s work in general.


Book Cover: Plastivore by Matt Truxaw
Plastivore by Matt Truxaw


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