Station Eleven follows the interconnected lives of 5 key characters pre and post the Georgian Flu epidemic which wipes out more than 99% of the world’s population. A key element of the story follows the Travelling Symphony, a group of performing theatre artists and musicians re-enacting Shakespeare’s plays to the remaining bands of survivors & scanty civilizations scattered across North America, 15 to 20 years after the collapse. While a larger segment of the book focuses on these different characters in the immediate aftermath and many years later, it also throws light on the lives of these characters years before the pandemic. The story isn’t represented in a liner fashion, instead, the timeline jumps back and forth across characters, and you gradually start seeing all the gaps fill. It’s almost like isolated pieces of a puzzle, gradually joining in with others to form a whole. Another aspect, I completely loved was that the novel doesn’t work towards a big reveal in the end. Rather, it allows you to pick up on the threads of how the characters’ lives intersect, gradually, right from the start. So there’s this consistent sense of intrigue running from the very first page to the very last. Station Eleven is also masterfully layered, not just in the characters & the intersection of their lives, but in the nuances of the plot itself. There are these tiny references and subplots within the larger context of the story all tying in and adding further to its depth. So reading this novel felt like slowly uncovering a Pandora ’s Box and the experience was unparalleled.
Dystopia is a genre that can easily be overly dramatized, depressing & unbelievable with supernatural and scifi elements (more often than not) weaved in. Station Eleven does exactly the opposite. It steers clear of mind-bending, twisted, innovative interpretations of what the world might be, but rather, provides a completely logical, deeply humane, intimate, gritty and realistic story on how things might pan out if most of humanity were wiped out in a deadly pandemic. I was surprised by the emotional depth of this novel. The reason I say so is because, this book took me, as a reader, in its grip and placed me within the frame of the story at every instance. Whilst reading, I had a constant parallel track running in my mind where I kept imagining myself in that situation and contemplating how I might have reacted. And for me, that is a huge indicator of the success of a book. Mandel’s writing is emotive & lyrical without trying too hard. There is this stripped back, simplistic allure to it. Station Eleven isn’t bereft of hope, it isn’t depressing. It certainly is hard hitting at times, edge-of-the-seat gritty, even thrilling, but it’s also really tender & visceral, liberating and incredibly hopeful. And that to me is Dystopia done right.
On the whole, I am completely taken by how much I enjoyed this book, how much it challenged me to think and how long it’s going to stay with me. I definitely feel this is the best dystopian novel I’ve read, and I’d much prefer this to the classics like 1984, or The Handmaid’s Tale or even A Brave New World. There were a few sections that dragged slightly, and could’ve been shortened, so if I was being really nitpicky, I’d give it a 4.7/5. But I’m just going to round it up to a 5, as I do think it really deserves it.