Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Book cover of Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

I read this book two whole months ago. Since then, my daily life has been taken over by a demanding new job and my reading life has been taken over by War & Peace. However, due to the gloriousness that is Easter Weekend, I’ve had some time to myself and I feel able to finally talk about Station Eleven. You, my friends, are in for a mildly indignant treat.

Plot summary: What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty.

One snowy night in Toronto famous actor Arthur Leander dies on stage whilst performing the role of a lifetime. That same evening a deadly virus touches down in North America. The world will never be the same again.

Twenty years later Kirsten, an actress in the Travelling Symphony, performs Shakespeare in the settlements that have grown up since the collapse. But then her newly hopeful world is threatened.

If civilisation was lost, what would you preserve? And how far would you go to protect it?

This book was recommended to me by almost everybody – I’ve seen glowing reviews, the Waterstones cashier was raving about it at the cash desk and an acquantaincey work colleague sort-of grudgingly admitted that he quite liked it. I’m also perfectly aware how many awards this thing has won. I… this does not make a lot of sense to me.

It was sold to me as a unique story about the struggle to retain our culture and therefore (arguably) our humanity, after a disaster of epic proportions. This is a perfect idea for a book – so many books concentrate on actually surviving, which is understandable but not particularly ground-breaking anymore. Unfortunately, Station Eleven reads exactly like one of those novels – a fairly generic post-apocalyptic novel in which some of the characters just happen to be Shakespearean actors. The plays themself (and other references to culture) are an incredibly minor part of the story, which mostly revolves around the usual hunts for food, Doomsday Cults and the fight for survival.

I mean, there’s nothing wrong with that. I like a good post-apoc as much as the next person. There’s just nothing particularly interesting or unique about it either. By two thirds of the way through, I just wanted to finish it and move on to something, ANYTHING, else. To put this into context, I was looking forward to going back to War & Peace. I know, right?

There are multiple POVs here and some of them are really interesting. There’s Kirsten who idolises the actor she saw die on stage as a child, Clark who’s running a sort-of museum in an abandoned airport, and Jeevan who was one of the first survivors, to name just a few. The problem is that each character is given far too much ‘screen-time’ in one sitting and so by the time we’ve circled back to a previous character, you don’t care about them anymore. Essentially, I suppose I’m saying that Station Eleven needed to be longer… or shorter. Either spend more time building up the characters, or let us cycle back to them quicker.

The ending was… well, there actually wasn’t one. The book just kind of stopped. Honestly, it felt as though the author just went ‘oh, and they all match up because of this…’ and then wandered off to put the kettle on. It’s very wishy-washy and I was expecting more after such a lengthy and thorough build-up. Don’t get me wrong, I was pleased that I was able to put the damn thing away but I’d still been harbouring a sneaky hope that I was about to be blown away by an epic ending. I was not.

It actually reminds me a lot of Cloud Atlas, now I think about it. There are too many strands and it tries so damn hard to be clever and link them all up that it ends up failing to develop any of them properly.

You’ve probably gathered that I wasn’t a huge fan of Station Eleven, although I’m willing to admit that my high expectations didn’t help. I just found it to be rather pretentious, over-ambitious and to be honest, slightly boring.

Read a more positive review of Station Eleven at Curiosity Killed the Bookworm.


  1. Bex says:

    As soon as I read 'it was sold to me as' I was like,uh oh she didn't like it :-p honestly the hype is why I haven't read this yet. Thanks for calling that down for me!

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  3. Despite the hype, I haven't quite been able to bring myself to read this one. I feel like I've read a lot of modern dystopian/post-apocalyptic novels, and something would really have to stand from the rest to make me want to read it. And I haven't been convinced that this would. I may get round to it at some point but in the meantime, I have too much else to read.

  4. Jillian says:

    Oh I hated Cloud Atlas. It didn't want to end!! I didn't like this book either. I couldn't understand and see the point. What was I supposed to take away from it? It is so interesting though how MOST love it. We must be missing something.

  5. Ellie Warren says:

    Well obviously I have a different opinion on this book…but I made Josh read it and he wasn't into all the viewpoints either, though he preferred the general post apoc stuff more.

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  7. I really enjoyed this book. The time-shifting narrative was a little disorienting, but I quickly got used to it. The structure of the text is really superb — each of the flashbacks/forwards occurs at exactly the right moment to illumine the story. The characters are well-drawn and interesting. I really wanted to know what happened next! I think this one of the best post-Apocalyptic books I've ever read. Strongly recommend.

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  13. Tom McDonald says:

    I really enjoyed this book. The time-shifting narrative was a little disorienting, but I quickly got used to it. The characters are well-drawn and interesting. I really wanted to know what happened next! I think this one of the best post-Apocalyptic books I have ever read. I will recommend it to my friends.

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