Book Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

The simplest way to describe Station Eleven is to call it a post-apocalyptic novel. This is also a wildly misleading description. Station Eleven is more concerned with well-developed characters than it is with big action sequences.

Much of the book is set in the aftermath of the fictional Georgia Flu Pandemic. This is a pandemic that has wiped out approximately ninety-nine percent of the world’s population. All of modern infrastructure and luxury is in-turn wiped out and those who survived must adapt to living in this broken world.

This novel focuses on a group of characters that are not usually center stage in a story like this: a Traveling Symphony of Shakespearean actors and musicians. This Traveling Symphony moves from town to town along the shores of the Great Lakes (primarily lakes Huron and Michigan in the northern Lower Peninsula). The main character featured in this troupe is a young actress named Kristen. Kristen has a tattoo written on her arm that states Station Eleven’s unofficial motto and theme:

“Survival is insufficient.”

For Kirsten and her fellow companions, survival isn’t enough. Art and entertainment is important. It’s even more valuable in times of hardship and an uncertain future. Therefore, they have banded together to provide Shakespeare’s plays to the disparate communities of northern Michigan. However, Mandel doesn’t ignore the severity of the situation, writing: “There were moments around campfires when someone would say something invigorating about the importance of art, and everyone would find it easier to sleep that night. At other times it seemed a difficult and dangerous way to survive and hardly worth it […]” (p.119). The topic of the “importance of art” is more relevant today than ever. We now live in an age where some feel that the arts aren’t worth preserving. The overarching story of Station Eleven tells us that art is more vital than ever when times are dire.

While Station Eleven contains thematic elements throughout, it is an entertaining story in and of itself. In addition to being set post-Pandemic, sections of the book take place prior to the outbreak. Most of this portion of the story takes place in Toronto, Canada as well as other regions of the world. The reader gets to witness the contrast of character conflicts when times were “good” compared to when they are “bad.” There is also a web of character connections, at the center of which is acclaimed Shakespearean actor Arthur Leander. Readers get to speculate on how the different characters connect to one another as they go back as forth between present action and past. The title of the novel itself proves a crucial touchstone that serves plot, theme, and character.

I really liked Station Eleven. The greatest strength of the book is its rounded characters. Presenting the lives of the characters before and after the calamity emphasizes how their art and loved ones have shaped who they are as people. These qualities provide the novel with an unexpected optimistic tone.  Plus, it’s always refreshing to read a great book (especially one that is internationally acclaimed) set in our great state of Michigan. Station Eleven is both a work of literature and speculative fiction that is accessible to readers of most age levels (13 years and up).

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is this year’s One Book, One Community selection for Monroe County. It was also the Michigan Humanities Council Great Michigan Read for the years 2015-16. The organization will be selecting a new Michigan-centric book for the years 2017-18. We will post this selection on the Ally Learning home page after it is announced.

Station Eleven should be available at most local libraries in the fiction catalog.


Christopher Kwiecien

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