Station Eleven (10 September 2014) by Emily St. John Mandel
First, two points about my experience of reading so far in 2014.
1. I've read some great books this year, but in terms of highly anticipated new fiction, 2014 has frequently been disappointing. Elizabeth is Missing and The Miniaturist, two enormously hyped debuts I had been hearing about since around a year ago, were both perfectly readable and okay, but fell far short of what I expected from them; Sarah Waters' new novel The Paying Guests I found boring beyond belief and didn't even finish. Therefore, when I started hearing about Station Eleven, I approached it with scepticism. It's Emily St. John Mandel's fourth novel, but whereas the first three were put out by an indie publisher, Unbridled Books, this one has been picked up by major publishers in both the UK and US. If you're're active in the book community on Twitter, it probably won't need any introduction - although it doesn't come out until September, in social media terms it is already one of the most talked-about books I have come across all year. The marketing campaign has been extensive and effective. I'm yet to start hearing about the book in the mainstream media but I have no doubt that I will. All of which inevitably left me wondering whether it could possibly be as good as people were saying, and actually put me off starting it immediately.
2. This has been the year I have discovered I really enjoy speculative fiction, or at least some sub-section of it that I'm not quite sure how to define. Three of the most enjoyable books I've read in 2014 - Louise Welsh's A Lovely Way To Burn, Sarah Lotz's The Three, and this - have been based around a version of the near future that might, to various degrees, be called dystopian. All of these books could be defined as fantasy, but they retain a significant sense of the 'real', recognisable world. They are not high fantasy or science fiction and, particularly in the case of Station Eleven, they are more literary in style than many would expect this genre to be. There's a whole other tangent here about how I've become jaded by the hackneyed themes of much popular literary fiction, and find myself drawn more and more towards books like this - well-written, intelligent and driven by character as much as plot, but including components and tropes traditionally belonging to genre fiction: a mystery, bits of fantasy or horror, gothic elements - than I am to more 'typical' literary fiction, but that is another discussion for another time.
Station Eleven itself is a book I am keen to recommend, but I don't want to say that much about it. I think it is best approached with little existing knowledge of what happens. It is about a future version of North America, twenty years after most of the population was wiped out by a pandemic. But it starts in the present day, during a theatre performance of King Lear, and throughout the book there are flashbacks to these 'before' moments which gradually establish the backgrounds of several characters - characters who do not necessarily feature in the 'after' sections, but have some kind of link to those who do. Although you may have to wait for some time to find out what that link is. 'Station Eleven' is not, as you might expect (well, I did), some remote outpost in this ravaged landscape, but a reference to a kids' comic book which is... well, it's a part of one of those links.
This is a very elegantly written novel, very restrained. It doesn't go too far with its world-building, and it isn't overdramatic; in fact, one of the many remarkable things about it is how quiet this fall of civilisation seems to be. It isn't, of course, and we know this from things some of the characters say, and fragments of their memories, but all of this happens off-screen, with the focus purely on the 'before' and 'after'. The story is more about human behaviour, relationships and the invisible connections between individuals then anything else. The fact that it is set in a post-apocalyptic future could almost be incidental, but I can't deny that the surreal surroundings add an intense intrigue and a sort of malevolent undertone to anything that happens. There is constant, low-level tension. For anyone who finds abandoned buildings interesting, there are parts of this narrative that will be endlessly fascinating. There are flecks, mere flecks, of magic.
I'm not going to write about the characters in detail, either, except to say that I loved them. They are so real. Mandel is one of those authors who can do that magical thing of making a fictional person human and sympathetic within just a couple of pages, without much background detail being needed. She isn't afraid to kill characters off, but it's never gratuitous; she also isn't afraid of leaving loose ends untied and important things unsaid.
The book Station Eleven most reminded me of was Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad - which I can't remember very clearly and would be hard pressed to recall anything specific about, and yet I repeatedly thought of it throughout my reading of this book. Looking back at my review of Goon Squad, I wrote: 'The chapters, then, are not always directly about the main characters, and sometimes don't even mention them at all; the story reaches out beyond the protagonists to explore the past and future of the people surrounding them. Each chapter works on its own as a self-contained short story but the connections between all of them form... not quite a whole, but more a sort of web, or network.' Most of this is true of Station Eleven, except that it isn't structured as short stories (the post-pandemic narrative runs through the book and is interspersed with flashbacks), but each character's story could, I think, be taken out and read as a short story on its own. Station Eleven as a whole circles one character in particular, but it also tells the stories of various others in order to achieve that.
For me, this incredibly enjoyable novel is a perfect blend of literary and genre fiction, the sort of story I would love to read more of: intelligent, elegant, original, with both plot and character realised beautifully. It is a wonderful piece of real storytelling and yet it is tightly controlled; I could have read more and more and more about this world, but I'm glad the book isn't too sprawling. Its clear focus on who and what it is about is a great strength. With this one, you can believe the hype.
I received an advance review copy of Station Eleven from the publisher through NetGalley.
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