Station Eleven: Review

October 2, 2014 2014, 4.5 star books, adult crossover, dystopian/post-apocalyptic, Kim 32 ★★★★½

Station Eleven: ReviewStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Published by Random House on September 9, 2014
Genres: adult, dystopian
Pages: 333
Format: eARC
Source: Publisher
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An audacious, darkly glittering novel about art, fame, and ambition set in the eerie days of civilization's collapse, from the author of three highly acclaimed previous novels.

One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time-from the actor's early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theater troupe known as the Traveling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains-this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor's first wife, his oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony, caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet. Sometimes terrifying, sometimes tender, 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.

This is a fascinating story, a combination of post-apocalyptic genre fiction and literary fiction. A novel that is not so much concerned with the how of survival as it is with the why. It is a survival story but it is not survivalist. There are almost no heart pounding action scenes or encounters with the depraved dregs of humanity. There are big questions at hand. What does it mean to be alive when almost everyone else is dead? How do we go on when the world we knew is gone? How do you make a life in the graveyard of civilization?

There is a certain horror element in how real the situation could be. A pandemic flu could come and wipe out humanity. There have been great plagues throughout history. In the age of air travel our world is more interconnected than ever. We will carry that virus farther and faster than it could ever imagine in its wildest virus dreams.

 “If hell is other people, what is a world with almost no people in it?”

The author skillfully weaves the story back and forth through time and across the perspectives of four people who all knew a single man, either very well or just briefly. Through Arthur, the actor who dies on stage shortly before the flu carries off 99% of humanity, we trace the ways in which the actions of a single life have far reaching consequences. What is the price of love? Of selfishness? Of kindness? Of the myriad contradictions that make up a human being? For such a quietly contained novel the scope of its themes is enormous.

This isn’t a book that has a plot with forward momentum (this isn’t a bad thing, I swear). Rather, it is a reflection on living, on the small moments that make up a life. The story moves back and forth from the world shortly before the pandemic, to twenty years after, to during the breakdown, and back again to before and after. It shows us the same characters in the different stages of existence and how their lives are somehow both different and the same. But this is still a post-apocalyptic novel. There are bad things out there in the great unclaimed wild and heartbreak and loss are certainties.

The author has a gift for starkly laying out how incredible it is to live with the technology and means that we have and to make you immediately feel the profundity of that loss:

“She imagined Clark hanging up the receiver in his office in Manhattan. This was during the final month of the era when it was possible to press a series of buttons on a telephone and speak with someone on the far side of the earth.”

I could sit here and talk to you about the perfection of the prose, how tenderly the characters are drawn, how seamlessly the narrative moves about through time and place…And those things are all so excellently done, but that’s not what this story is really about.

It seems to me that this novel is both prayer and love letter to humanity. It is a quiet, elegantly composed story about the miracles of every day existence (both pre and post apocalypse) and the connectedness of human life. This is a novel that pauses amidst the chaos of pandemic, amidst the panic of survival in ruins of civilization to think on how strange it is to be anything at all in the first place. It is infused with a certain sense of magic. The simple, unbelievably complex magic of just being alive. Having this moment and this moment and the next one.   

Is it possible to miss a world you still inhabit? This book did just that. It is concerned with small moments By Chapter 6 I was haunted. It is a litany of loss:

“No more Internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship status updates with heart icons whole or broken, plans to meet up later, pleas, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween. No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room.”

This is not a story you should read if you’re looking for typical post-apocalyptic fare full of action, thrills, and danger. I would not say that this is a “slow” book for that has a negative connotation. If this book is slow it is only because it is necessary for taking the time to examine each scene, each situation, each wish, each hope and loss.

“Hell is the absence of the people you long for.”

When I finished this book I sat in reflection for awhile. I felt an overwhelming sense of grief and euphoria. I felt prayerful and meditative. I get to live in this world which is not gone. And even admist all the loss, and grief, and sorrow, it is the most hopeful post-apocalyptic novel I’ve ever read.



An advance copy was provided by the publisher for this review.


kim teal












32 Responses to “Station Eleven: Review”

  1. Adeline S.

    I loved this book! The writing, the eerie, bleak setting were great! I love how everything comes together, piece by piece. It goes beyond the post apocalyptic world and it’s really a reflection on memory and humanity. There was a sort of bittersweet feeling to it, but ultimately hopeful tone.

  2. Jamie

    YES YES omg I loved this one!! My review goes up next week but I FEEL THE SAME WAY!!! I just loved that it was such a DIFFERENT post-apocalyptic novel and focused on things that are often glossed over a bit. Most of the post-apocalyptic books I read are so action-y and ABOUT that survival element and this portrayed the current reality ENOUGH for me to be terrified but it so perfectly touched on the things you’d be thinking about and reflecting on. GAH. I HAVE ALL THE THINGS TO SAY ABOUT THIS BOOK BUT I CANNOT. It’s one that needs to be experienced. I finally had to be like OKAY are DONE and schedule it. Your review is perrrrf. Makes mine look silly haha.
    Jamie recently posted…I Think I’ve Made A Terrible Mistake

    • Kim

      Oh you. Don’t be silly. I know your review is going to be amazing! I saw we were reading this at the same time and I was super curious for your thoughts! I find it fascinating when a Kim Book and a Jamie Book collide AND we end up agreeing! :)

      It took me awhile to realize what was going on with this one. That it’s not standard P-A fare. But once I caught on to the tone and mood of the book and realized it’s not supposed to be all Action! Danger! I could barely put it down. Even when the connections between the main characters became obvious I still just loved it. It’s one of the more unique books I’ve read. I just loved how meditative it was. It really reminded me a lot of Carl Sagan’s contemplative, elegant musings on society, life, and the universe and that is high praise indeed.
      Kim recently posted…Chaos by Sarah Fine: review

  3. Thomas

    Fabulous review! Station Eleven sounds like a book that draws its strength more from its characters and its underlying meanings as opposed to its plot – perhaps a refreshing change when it comes to post-apocalyptic stories.
    Thomas recently posted…Amour, Redux

    • Kim

      Yep, you’re spot on. It’s all about the characters in this one which isn’t something I mind at all but certainly isn’t for everyone. I just loved it, though. Definitely a refreshing change for P-A fiction that was most welcomed by me.
      Kim recently posted…Dissonance: Review

  4. Sharon Rose

    This books sounds right up my alley! I love post-apocalypse tales but the genre is filled with cliche ideas at this point. This book seems like it goes in a totally different direction so I’m hoping it’s a breathe of fresh air among all the end of the world stuff that seems all the same.

    • Kim

      Oh totally. It’s definitely something new and fresh in a genre which is in sore need. Come back and let me know what you think if you end up reading it!
      Kim recently posted…Dissonance: Review

  5. Layla

    Kim, this sounds absolutely wonderful. This wasn’t even on my radar until you wrote about it! And I’m interested in the idea of a post-apocalyptic novel that is nostalgic for our current historical moment rather than troubled or like cautionary (I feel like a lot of the time in post-apocalyptic fiction the focus is on … already seeing the roots of the end and then seeing that play out, rather than nostalgia. If that makes sense). It also sounds like it defamiliarizes the present to some extent? I’m interested in seeing this play out (and am of course also a sucker for a good prose style).

    Great review! So glad you read and reviewed this!
    Layla recently posted…Rooms by Lauren Oliver: interview + giveaway

    • Kim

      I think you would really, really enjoy it, Layla. And I’m so happy to get it on your radar! I just love when I can sort of play matchmaker with people and books! :p And, I mean, this novel is troubled. Definitely. But it’s not cautionary. Or at least, not in an obvious or overhanded way. The overarching feel of the book is just joy and nostalgia and love for everything that came before and an appreciation for having each other when that is all that is left. It’s really just a lovely story.
      Kim recently posted…Dissonance: Review

  6. Carina Olsen

    Amazing review Kim. <3 I'm so glad you loved this book. It isn't for me, but ohh. That cover is pretty awesome :D Thank you for sharing your honest and awesome thoughts. <3
    Carina Olsen recently posted…In My Mailbox #153

  7. Sea Cho

    Sounds like an interesting story. The post-apocalyptic stories I read usually have monsters or zombies causing the disaster, so there is always tension. I always think it’s great to have points of view from before and after the disaster.

    It seems like the book kind of relates how you don’t know how much you miss something until its gone. Though it seems the book also takes place partially twenty years after the disaster, so maybe I am wrong.

    • Kim

      Well, there are monsters in this story but they’re other humans! And there’s plenty of tension to go around, even in the pre-apocalypse parts of the story. And you’re spot on in that assessment, actually. It’s all about not realizing the wondrousness of this every day life until it’s all gone and it’s too late.
      Kim recently posted…Love Is the Drug: Review

  8. Pili

    I knew the book sounded fantastic and it is actually the very first finished book I have been sent by a publisher and my copy is an absolutely gorgeous piece of bookish art, and now that I’ve read your review… I know I need to read this one quite badly, Kim!
    I love the idea of both reading how the apocalypse came to happen and how people are living with the aftermath and knowing that you loved it makes me quite sure that I will also adore it!
    Pili recently posted…First Chapter, First Paragraph #12: Lark Ascending by Meagan Spooner!!

    • Kim

      Ohhh I’m jealous of that finished copy! :) I definitely need to get one for myself. This is definitely a book I’ll return to whenever I feel the need to experience that wondrousness and sense of awe that the story conveys. It’s a really, really lovely book. Which is so strange to say about a post-apocalyptic story! But there we have it.
      Kim recently posted…Love Is the Drug: Review

    • Kim

      You’re right. Sometimes slow is needed. There was an initial adjustment period with for this novel since post apocalyptic novels are usually so different with action! danger! thrills! And this one is all poetry and flow. I’m so glad I adjusted to it. It was an unexpected delight!

    • Kim

      Oh I hope you do! And if you do please come back and let me know what you thought!

    • Kim

      It is completely different from any other PA novel I’ve ever read. It’s pretty different from all novels really. It’s just like a poetic ode to life that just happens to take place in the ruins of civilization. It’s an incredible book. It’s just important to know going into it that it’s not the standard PA fare.

  9. jenclair

    I liked this one very much: the pandemic and its aftermath, the importance of art and culture, the graphic novel connection. A very satisfying experience.

    • Kim

      Oh yay! Someone else who’s read it. I really loved spending time in an apocalypse that concerned itself with art and the meaning of life. Like you say it was immensely satisfying. And I’m such a sucker for end of the world scenarios. They draw me like moth to flame (what does that say about me? o_O )

  10. Nikki

    I MUST read this! I love that you described it as post-apocalyptic but also literary fiction. Just not a combination you see all that often and done well. Can’t wait!

    • Kim

      Yes you must! For me this struck just the right balance between literary and genre. It was just beautifully done. Come back and let me know what you think after you read it! :)