Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven is a beautifully written tale of a troupe of performers surviving in a post-apocalyptic North America. The novel won the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke award, and the writing is breathtaking, the prose of a true artist.
Station Eleven is not only superbly written, but also boasts an intriguing plot, vivid characters and a carefully woven story, complete with nice little plot device of a graphic novel that is dear to one of the main characters. The kindle version also features several pleasant images of what the comic might look like at the end of the book.
And yet, despite all that, I felt that there were weaknesses within the novel. The most notable, for me, was the beginning. The novel opens with a performance of King Lear that takes up the opening few pages. I felt, while reading it, that there was surely something different in the performance that set it aside from the genuine play – a character that was different, some line of diagloue subtly altered – something that would hint at the novel’s direction, an indicator of what was different in the novel’s world as compared to the real world. Those familiar with King Lear might well notice the discrepancy (it is explained in the acknowledgements after the novel) but for those like me who are unfamiliar with the play, the opening was a put-off. It felt a little as if the book wasn’t intended for me – that if I didn’t know Lear inside out I really shouldn’t be reading the book in the first place (I doubt that was the author’s intention, but the thought did occur to me). I nearly stopped reading, but the writing was eloquent enough that I continued, and on balance I am pleased I did.
While I enjoyed the novel, the other great problem for me was the lack of pace. True, it was beautifully written and carefully crafted, yet for someone who reads a lot of Science Fiction and Fantasy, the novel seemed to suffer from a lack of pace. The novel flowed smoothly, but when I finished reading I was left with the sensation that, despite the beautiful prose, not a lot had actually happened. Of course, it wasn’t the kind of action-filled tale of George R. R. Martin or bload-soaked invective-filled story of Joe Abercrombie, but at times I felt the story progressed just a little too slowly. It could have been leaner, but in doing so the novel might have lost the very prose that made it so sumptuous.
Part of my view is likely due to a misconception as to the book’s genre: I approached it thinking it a Science Fiction novel, whereas in truth it is perhaps better construed as literary fiction with a Science Fiction setting. Regardless of that, the novel was extremely enjoyable and if you’re looking for a change of pace after reading the latest action-packed Space Opera, or just want to read something beautifully written, then I would recommend it. Take your time and savour it, immerse yourself in the world of the Travelling Symphony.