Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel Review: A Study in Memory

Welcome to my first post of Book Thoughts! Be prepared for lots of amateur criticism. I’m writing this blog to improve and expand the way I read books and I’m happy to start discussions and field constructive criticisms! Leave me a message in the comments and I’ll be sure to answer. Now, on to Station Eleven! (Oh yes, there will be spoilers.)

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (2014) is an intricately woven tale of love and memory within a rapidly changing society. Split into nine parts and fifty-five chapters, the novel cycles through a whirlwind of third-person perspectives naturally and adroitly developing a story never quite in present or past about a traveling symphony and Shakespeare troupe traversing the Midwest in the later of twenty years after a global pandemic caused by the “Georgia flu” decimates the world population. A nearly equal amount of time is spent in the twenty or so years leading up to the flu and especially the days of the first worldwide outbreaks. Taken together, these temporal shifts illustrate how personal relationships and social memory remain largely unchanged even as society is broken down macroscopically.

If the premise seems strange to you, I urge you to suppress that feeling and read on. After reading the novel, I’m convinced that joining a traveling acting group is the most natural path to take after a devastating virus kills our conception of society. You’ll know where to find me once civilization has collapsed.

Mandel employs not only time shifts and flashbacks to construct the narrative but also shifts in tense. Scenes set in the post-fall time vary between a present and a past narration. The same is true for scenes in the pre-fall. This appears to be a storytelling technique consciously utilized to force the reader into jumping between a feeling of immediacy or a feeling of retrospection. The technique is effective and, in the end, logical. Logical because it seems that the character Clark holds all the pieces together. He is the glue between all the perspectives because he knew all of the characters who the story follows. In that case, it may be that the whole story is created or narrated by Clark and passed on, becoming a part of the oral tradition of the post-collapse, told for generations in his Museum of Civilization. If we take this to be true, a narrative style more fluid, imperfect, and talky makes sense.

In a sense, this book is Clark’s greatest contribution to his museum.

Fundamentally, this book is an exploration of how things change and how things stay the same. At its core, Station Eleven is a depiction of what Mandel sees as the unchanging, foundational aspects of human society and interaction, our relationships. This novel is a delightful, powerful, and accessible look at what makes us human and how we preserve and cultivate those relationships even in the most dire of circumstances. Station Eleven earned every accolade it garnered in 2014. I look forward to reading more of Mandel’s work in the future.

Discussion question: Now that Station Eleven has been optioned and purchased (!!!), who is your ideal director for the film? (Shout out to Pints and Cupcakes for, among a million other things, raising this question to me a few days ago.)

Coming soon:

Rat Queens

Kafka on the Shore

One Hundred Years of Solitude (read in Spanish)

And many others!

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel Review: A Study in Memory

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