The one with the post-apocalyptic Shakespeare

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (2014)

To say that I’m ambivalent about post-apocalyptic novels is the major understatement of 2015 (I read it last year). I’m fascinated by them but they make me so very anxious and depressed (especially when done well, with any hint of realism) that I often prefer to abstain altogether.

I started the Road and stopped after a few dozens pages, not that it wasn’t good, on the contrary, but because it was way too depressing. I said I would come back to it on a very sunny and fun day, but then who opens The Road on a fun day?

I only heard very positive things about Station Eleven, and I asked around to trusted bloggers if it was depressing. Short answer: it isn’t. I took my sweet little time to listen to them but they were right. The tone is one of sadness and elegy over a disappeared world. Just as characters mourn the world they knew in their childhood. The book is surprisingly mellow: most of the gore and violence happens off stage, and the focus is on survivors of the flu 15 years later, so that the edge of the apocalypse has had time to soften and dust to settle over the few remnants of humanity.

I often object to books built with alternating timelines because it’s often just an excuse to build up density and structure. But here I liked it because alternating between the events leading to the mass epidemic wiping most of humanity off and the survivors’ new life allowed sadness to seep into the reading and to let us understand all that was lost. Some reviewers found it not cruel enough, too soft (I’m thinking of Janet Maslin of the NYT for example), but it kind of reconciled me with this genre.

Not to say I’m quite read for the Road yet, but I think that Station Eleven will remain in my memory for a while. Until the end of the world? I hope not.

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10 thoughts on “The one with the post-apocalyptic Shakespeare

  1. I read this just as the Ebola epidemic was taking off. Not good timing that! I did, however, think it was excellent. What I really liked, apart from the quality of the writing, was that she is ultimately hopeful about humankind and clearly believes in the arts as a means of taking humanity forward. I’ve gone back to read some of her earlier work, which is rather different, but still very well written. Her back catalogue is definitely worth exploring.

  2. Aw, this book. I wouldn’t, er, necessarily graduate to The Road, because that’s pretty intense apocalypse stuff, but if you ever want me to recommend you an apocalypsey sort of book, I AM YOUR MAN. You might try Karen Walker’s The Age of Miracles! It’s not at all like Station Eleven, but it’s a sort of more gentle kind of apocalypse story.

    • I agree that I’m not ready for the Road and I don’t know if i’ll ever be. The Age of miracles had come into my radar but i’d decided it might be just too sad (maybe I’m just a big baby). But since they’re already 2 of you recommending it, I might give it a try!

  3. I have to be careful of this genre too. This one gave me a vicious book hangover – I couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks after finishing. Her writing simply glowed, even with such a heavy subject. I adored it. When you’re ready for another apocalyptic novel, I second Jenny’s recommendation of The Age of Miracles. It was lovely – sad, but lovely.

    • Yes, I kept thinking of it for such a long time too! I paced myself because in the middle I found it too disturbing, and then I was glad to savour her writing for a little longer. I’m not sure about the Age of Miracles, I need some more time before trying it!

  4. So glad you liked it! I think I too enjoyed it more because it was different than the usual end-of-the world books. I still haven’t read The Road and I like post-apocalypse novels!

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