Review – Station Eleven

Cover of Station Eleven by Emily St John MandelStation Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel

I originally received this to review, but have actually bought a copy in the meantime because I took too long about getting to it — and some of my friends were very enthusiastic about it.

I’m actually finding this one a difficult one to review, anyway. The prose is great, and the interweaving of the plots, the character arcs, and the way the different time periods are handled… all of that worked very well for me. The set-up of the world, too: the plague, the way people survive, the existence of something like the Travelling Symphony (though it did remind me of Genevieve Valentine’s Mechanique). It just… doesn’t seem to be sticking with me. I finished it last night and I’m already forgetting details and connections.

Maybe part of it is that I didn’t really form an emotional connection to anyone. The way it shifts between central characters caused that, somewhat: I was never sure who was coming back, who was incidental. And sometimes the characters were just… drifting through their lives without purpose. The actor, for example, his hopping between wives and his callousness to his friends; he’s a well-written character, and yet not one I can be passionate about.

I think maybe what it really lacked for me was a sense of destination. “Survival” is all the characters aim for, and there’s no one unifying thing that they’re all drawn toward, so that their coming together feels unimportant. I don’t usually need some big epic event as a book’s climax, but it didn’t seem like this had a climax — it was more a character study, a world study, which normally I would enjoy, but because I didn’t really connect with any of the characters, it didn’t elevate the novel beyond “well, objectively I can see it’s well-written”.

I hesitate over giving it a rating, because I normally rate by enjoyment, but also by a sense of ‘okay, I’ll take a star off for x and y’. I don’t want to dock it stars, though, and yet it doesn’t merit the highest accolades I’ve given to books like The Goblin Emperor. I’m going to have to go with three stars (‘liked it’) — which is not to say it’s not a good book, maybe even a five star book in some ways, but it just can’t touch the involvement I’ve had with books I’ve given five stars.

Rating: 3/5

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13 thoughts on “Review – Station Eleven

  1. I feel very much the same about it I recognize objectively that it is well crafted and yet somehow it just doesn’t engage me and I’m left picking nits that might not actually bother me if I was really hooked.

      • It’s very much a personal reaction though because we both know people who loved it. So what I gain from having had a meh reaction to something I know other people really enjoyed is a bit more clarity on what elements are important to me and maybe less so to others of my friends.

          • Yes for me to it edged right up to the boundary of the kind of literary fiction I actually actively dislike and avoid. It didn’t cross over but it got really close.

            • It seemed pretty close to the sort of self-important thing with smug privileged characters that drives me mad — except the bits with… uhh. The girl, on the road. And then even then. Calling characters by their instruments started to drive me bats.

              • Yes! And a sort of privileged disregard for how anything works. I mean before or after the collapse they kind of just wander around being self absorbed and yet somehow magically food and clean laundry and reeds and strings for their instruments, feed for the horses…The story never focuses on how they’re getting any of that done it’s like there’re still privileged enough that they don’t have to worry about it. How?

                • Yes, exactly. There’s like a handwave at some stuff like reeds and strings (oh we’ll get them from schools!) but even then I was sort of going “…but that’s not actually a sustainable resource??”

  2. I finished it this week, and I am hoping that the author will write a sequel where they find the city of lights. I thought it was cute that this book actually had the feel of the Star Trek Voyager series, it’s not about a destination – it’s about a journey. I gave it 5/5 but I see this as a platform from which more stories will emerge. It’s kind of unthinkable that the author could have left so many unanswered questions and NOT be planning a sequel. Eg. When Arthur died the book of his letters was still in pre-release, so how did Kirsten’s mother get a copy and why was she so concerned about Kirsten reading it? What happened to Elisabeth? etc…

  3. Survival is a bad goal to give to characters. All organisms try to survive. It says little about the character. You need to give the characters a goal that’s connected to their traits. Survival is just struggling against external things. That’s why it’s popular in video games.

    Shedding some light on why the book didn’t work. I didn’t read it, but this is the conclusion I reached to from your review.

      • Maybe, but you’re creating a one-dimensional, boring story. These are the stories of animals.

        Human beings think about much more than survival. Survival is much more interesting when it’s the survival of civillzation, rather than a single individual. The survival of a single individual is just an action film

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