Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

20 May, 2015

Station Eleven

Longlisted for the Bailey’s Prize for Fiction and winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award this year, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven seems to have blown through the literary world garnering praise from readers across genres. A dystopian novel featuring a travelling band of Shakespearean actors, what is it that made so many fall in love with this novel?

Set 20 years after a flu pandemic originating in Georgia and carried via air travel from the from the Caucasus decimated almost all life, there are still pockets of areas where people have survived and are adjusting to a new world without ready energy, access to communication or any of the mod cons that bolster modern life. It’s recent enough for many to have memories of what life was life before the pandemic but increasing numbers of the survivors are forgetting or have no memories at all.

Station Eleven goes back and forth from the dystopian present to the period just before the pandemic breaks out in the States and follows a cast of characters beginning with the tough as nails actress Kirsten who remembers her last night as a child actress working with the legendary Arthur Leander before he collapsed on stage and who treasures the copy of the comic book, Station Eleven, which he gave to her shortly beforehand. Having lost her family in the aftermath, she is picked up by The Travelling Symphony a few years later and never looked back. Then there is Jeevan, a trainee paramedic who was the first to realise Arthur was dying and tried to help him, the first also to get a call from his best friend, a doctor in A&E, who told him of the people coming in sick and who warned him to get out of town. And then there is Arthur and his three wives, Miranda who dreamt of creating a comic book, superseded by Elizabeth, an actress who went to live in Israel with their son and a third he was in the middle of divorcing. And Arthur’s best friend Clark who is on a flight when the pandemic breaks and becomes stranded in an airport in the middle of nowhere. All these characters play a part in this tale, strangers to each other but connected in the most spectacular way. And then there is the mysterious Prophet who emerges many years later, going from town to town, offering salvation through submission and violence. The Travelling Symphony must avoid him to survive yet this is becoming increasingly difficult, especially since it is almost inevitable that the small number of survivors will run into each other.

I’m still in two minds about this novel. In one, I feel that perhaps the dystopian elements in the novel weren’t as cleverly rendered as in David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks and felt a little simplistic. And yet, the spare manner in which the different parts of Mandel’s tale coalesce produce something that is remarkable. I can’t seem to get Station Eleven out of my mind. I’m not sure whether the fact that The Travelling Symphony puts on Shakespearean plays makes it more acceptable than a genre novel or whether genre is becoming mainstream, but somehow, the Shakespearean aspect of the book seems negligable just like the fictional comic book, Station Eleven. What remains is the horror and despair that won’t subside even after twenty years. The pandemic remains alive in the characters’ minds and they are still numb, surviving on autopilot. Station Eleven ultimately is a book about community, how you cannot survive without others. That even if you do survive, you will seek out others, just to know you aren’t going mad.

One of the things I loved about the book is the community that sprung up in the airport. It happened organically, naturally, as though there was no other way except to keep going. And even though you know that you can survive and adapt pretty quickly, the idea itself that power, electricity and all mod cons can just disappear so quickly is terrifying. More than the violence people can do to each other. That if you lose those things, the world is irrevocably changed.

Station Eleven turned out to be a haunting novel, although in ways I didn’t expect. Mandel’s imagery is vivid and remains branded in my mind, especially the hulks of the ships off Singapore where Miranda is sent on a business trip just as the pandemic breaks, ships built during the financial bubble but with nowhere to go, lit up to avoid collision, huge ghostly hulks in the sea. They reminded me very much of the prison ships in Dickens’ Great Expectations, vast and lonely. It’s such images that tug you suddenly back into the story.

Mandel doesn’t directly address the dissolute nature of modern society and yet the individual stories and crises that her characters face point to a modern world collapsing in on itself, as though the pandemic was a washing away of accumulated sin. It’s certainly the outlook the Prophet took.

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3 Responses to “Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel”


  1. “I can’t seem to get Station Eleven out of my mind.” I think that shows it is a fantastic book. I still haven’t got around to reading this one, but I hope to soon. I keep reading all the negative thoughts and thinking it won’t be for me, but your review gives me hope that I may love it, despite its flaws.

    • sakura Says:

      It’s an interesting book precisely because your opinion of it will change as you read. One thing I really liked about it is that Mandel is a ‘less is more’ writer which gets you thinking. I think I’d only read really positive reviews of it (and I tried not to read many of them) so my expectations were pretty high. Interesting to hear that opinions were split. So I hope you do read it Jackie – I’d like to hear your thoughts.


  2. I adored Station Eleven – I agree it’s not perfect, but it’s elegant and hopeful, especially in the airport community. I’ve seen a lot of comments saying that flu surely couldn’t spread like that – but thanks to the virus living in aerosol droplets spread in each sneeze and airplanes sharing germs across continents, I’m convinced it could.


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