the Little Red Reviewer

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

Posted on: October 19, 2015

station 11Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

published 2014

where I got it: published new





Station Eleven thinks it’s about a woman named Kirsten who survives the apocalypse. But it’s really about those months and years that lead up to the awful events at the end of the world, those specific moments and events that will give Kirsten something to live for and keep looking for later, when she has nothing.  I didn’t know what to expect when I picked up Station Eleven. I certainly didn’t expect to love it as much as I did.


Mandel made a wise choice in telling this story in non-chronological order. If she’d told us the story in the exact order things happen, we’d know the ending right from the start. Things might be a surprise for Kirsten,  but they wouldn’t be a surprise for the reader. By giving us bits and pieces that happened now and then, the twists and turns are as equally a surprise for the reader as they are for the characters. Mandel teases all the connections out at just the right pace, with the starkness and sparseness of a placid planet that no longer has electricity or gasoline.


The center of the time line is a theater in snowy Toronto, a few weeks before a flu epidemic sends planet earth back to the dark ages. Kirsten is an eight year old child actress, doing Shakespeare alongside the famous Arthur Leander.  As an adult, Kirsten will remember very little of her childhood, but she’ll always remember the night Arthur had a heart attack and died on stage. This is the beginning of the end, in more ways than one. It was especially interesting, that a character who dies in the opening chapter  becomes a major character later on. It’s a trick you can pull when telling a story out of order!


Twenty years after the world ends, Kirsten travels with a caravan called the Traveling Symphony. She still performs Shakespeare.


Twenty years before the world ended, Arthur was enjoying the beginnings of fame. He was still in love with his first wife.

As the story moves forward, Arthur’s timeline will rush towards the end of the world. His marriages will fall apart, his career will falter, he’ll wonder where he went so wrong, he’ll feel like he’s just going through the motions. He’ll try to reconcile with his first wife, he’ll lose his father, he’ll become a father, the paparazzi will destroy any possibility of a healthy romantic relationship even though he’s always falling in love again.  Arthur never seems satisfied, he’s always looking for more,always looking for the next big thing.


Kirsten is only ever  looking for her next meal. The Traveling Symphony lives a sustenance lifestyle, often hunting and gathering food, or trading stage and musical performances for food. Their route takes them through central Michigan, between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan (I loved that this book took place in the state I live in! I want to geographically know where Severn City is. Is it a stand in for Traverse City? Grand Rapids?). The traveling symphony is a huge family, and they’ve got to be. The future isn’t somewhere you can survive alone.


Arthur’s first wife was an artist named Miranda. For much of her adult life, Miranda worked on a graphic novel called Dr. Eleven. A sort of diary of images, the story is complete fantasy, but she puts important moments in her life into the artwork – her ex-boyfriend’s face, an important dinner party, her pet dog.  There is a strange, dreamy parallel between the plot of Dr. Eleven, and the plot of the novel. Or, I may have been so engrossed in what was happening, that I imagined the connection. Regardless, it is comforting to think that there was one. Even though Miranda couldn’t have known what was coming when she wrote it.


Kirsten may end up finding all the answers to the questions that were borne in Arthur’s storyline, but I found Arthur’s pre-apocalypse storyline far more interesting than Kirsten’s. He’s got a lot of drama in his life, and as miserable as it made him, I enjoyed reading about his relationships, his letters home, the disastrous press that sometimes surrounded him.  Had Station Eleven been nothing but Arthur’s storyline, had the timeline ended with Miranda’s last flight to Asia, I would have enjoyed the book just as much.


Emily St. John Mandel’s prose was just a joy to read. The sparse style she uses  matches the atmosphere of the book. There’s not a lot of ornamentation here, nothing more than the fewest possible words to tell the strongest story. It’s like Kirsten’s backpack. When you have to carry everything you own, you make sure you own as little as possible.  There’s a starkness to the novel, but a peacefulness too, a freedom of sorts.  Quite impressive how Mandel is able to jam so much into so few pages.


Have you noticed that? that post-apocalyptic books are often told in very sparse language? Or at least the good ones are? I was wondering why I kept comparing Station Eleven to McIntosh’s Soft Apocalypse and McCarthy’s The Road. All three novels are told in quiet and calm language, as if the characters don’t have energy to spare, or are too exhausted and too hungry to show off. There’s a kind of mountain-top clear-air clarity there.


Post apocalyptic books are often too depressing for me (*waves at Cronin’s The Passage*). I don’t mind darkness in my  books, I usually don’t mind unlikeable characters. Station Eleven is probably the most hopeful, most optimistic post-apocalyptic book out there.  Even though I now know how it ends, and the mystery is gone, I want to read this book again sometime soon. Doesn’t matter that i know how it ends, reading it was like sitting in front of a beautiful piece of artwork at a museum.  Just sitting in front of the painting is enough. I’d like to sit there again.

14 Responses to "Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel"

Ooohh! I need to read this, like, today. You had me at “Mandel made a wise choice in telling this story in non-chronological order.” Flashbacks get a bad rap in fiction, but it’s often the cleanest, best way to tell a certain story. Add in all the other good things you’ve said about Station Eleven and it’s gone to the top of my TBR pile.


Agreed, this is such a special book. I reviewed it back when it came out and it still lingers with me. Your review brought back all the love! I still remember one of my favorite quotes, “Station Eleven is all around us.”


“Station Eleven is all around us.”

and that line is so very apt, given how the phrase “Station Eleven” is connected to so many of the characters


I loved this book, for all the reasons you talk about. I loved the complexity and how it’s so much more about the characters than just the post-apocalyptic storyline.


I absolutely loved this book! I am glad to see that it is still being talked about. I read it not soon after it was published and it was one of the books that helped get me out of the slump that reading for school put me in. Great review!


I liked it a lot too, when I read it nearly a year ago, and like you liked it more than I expected too. Nice review.


I’m really happy I picked it up. I kept hearing all these good things about it, and finally gave in to the hype. Nice to find a book that lives up to the hype.


I’m looking forward to reading this next month!


I’ve wanted to read this for ages – and now I want to read it even more. I need to bump it up the list!
Lynn 😀


I loved this one as well. And agree with how it seems the characters don’t have the energy to give more than a quiet calm version of it. Sometimes I also wonder if it is because they have become desensitized, its no longer anything but the expected and normal.


I agree with you when you mention about the language of post-apocalyptic stories. It’s what I like about the, too. A lonely world after a disaster usually leaves our protagonist with nothing but his/her own thoughts, and they are forced to choose to succumb to their bleak future or discover how to rekindle the hope in their lives. This one sounds far less depressing than The Road! I’m definitely keeping this one in mind!


“…as if the characters don’t have energy to spare, or are too exhausted and too hungry to show off. There’s a kind of mountain-top clear-air clarity there.”



It sounds like a really introspective book, which I think would give me a nice break from the post-apocalyptic books that I usually read (action action action!). 🙂 Lovely!


I agree, this book was pretty hopeful amongst other post-apocalyptic novels I’ve read. Great review! 🙂


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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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