Book Review: Station Eleven

Station Eleven

By Emily St. John Mandel

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Station Eleven is a beautifully written work of literary zombie fiction. (Okay, that’s just my category for it.) Although zombies never actually appear, an unexplained illness does emerge in the first few pages, quickly killing most of the world’s population. Like a zombie movie, the rest of the novel largely deals with the lives of the survivors.

The book opens the night of a production of King Lear. The lead actor, an aging, former A-list movie star, dies onstage. Later that night, reports surface of a mysterious illness that is rapidly devastating the world. From there, the story becomes a series of interwoven tales about the lives of various characters who are linked by the performance: a child actress, an EMT in the crowd, wives of the dead actor. However, the story doesn’t just explore their lives after the event; the story moves around to various points in their lives both before and after the event.

One of the St. John Mandel’s greatest successes is that the book avoids a gritty tone but is still able to convey many dark and dramatic events. It is optimistic, but believably so. While the survivors face many expected dangers and struggles, they also endeavor to keep art and meaning a part of their daily lives. The story constantly examines which things and memories we would hold onto and how those determinations may change after something so cataclysmic.

The author’s mastery of writing and moving from story to story is impressive and easy to follow. Still, like many books that jump around, I found that I just didn’t care about some characters and stories as much as others. Since my tastes skew nerdy, I wanted more survival struggles and fewer depictions of pre-pandemic personal strife. Nevertheless, while I normally scoff at literary takes on genre fiction, I found Station Eleven to be an enjoyable, well-written addition that managed to add original ideas to a well-tread setting. 

Station Eleven was a finalist for the National Book Award (fiction) in 2014