‘If Hua said there was an epidemic, then epidemic wasn’t a strong enough word. Jeevan was crushed by a sudden certainty that this was it, that the illness Hua was describing was going to be the divide between a before and after, a line drawn through his life.’
I finished this book five days ago and I’m only writing my review now as I’ve been surprisingly busy with directing the Rehearsed Readings going up in my local theatre tonight and tomorrow, as well as with driving lessons and various errands here and there, like going to the hospital and getting my hair dyed. But all of these are just excuses, really. I’ve avoided writing this review for so long because I was so dissapointed in this book, and it actually upset me a bit. What looked like a fascinating premise was squandered, and its taken me awhile to bring my thoughts on why this was coherently together. A famous actor dies onstage and that same night a deadly virus arrives in North America, changing the world forever. This was an ambitious premise to pull off, and sadly Station Eleven didn’t do it for me. I wanted so much to like this book that, even when I considered putting it down, I kept reading in the hope it would improve. It didn’t, and I regret wasting my time reading it.
This is a very harsh criticism, I realise. Hopefully, when I explain why I disliked this book so much, you will understand my strong turns of phrase. First of all, the book promised so much, but it felt so flat. Even when the virus struck and the end of the world occurred, because of the style of narration I always felt several steps removed from the novel’s characters, and it felt as though even in the most trying of situations there was little to no conflict. I say the novel’s characters, and that was another huge problem I had with this book – there were far too many, and some were not only unimportant in the course of the overall narrative but actually got in the way of the story the author was trying to tell. Due to the omniscient narrative style, I never felt I knew any of the characters, not that I think I could have even if the narrative style had been different. All of the characters felt like cliches – the female fighter, the aging actor, the crazy cultist, the high-powered businesswoman who is also sexually liberated – while many of the characters in the Travelling Symphony weren’t characters at all, just instruments. ‘But the first flute was less irritated by the seventh guitar than she was by the second violin…’ – am I meant to care about these characters? Because I really don’t. The majority of them were an unlikeable bunch anyway, but despite this, even at the end of the world when they were all fighting to survive, what conflict they did have felt petty and superficial. The fact that all of the characters – those who had names, anyway – all had some link to the actor who died in the first chapter felt too neat, and too implausible. There were so many occasions when it felt as though the author was trying to be clever with various twists, turns, and reveals, but because I didn’t care for any of the characters, or the confusing, meandering narrative, none of these felt either surprising, or clever.
‘Sometimes the Travelling Symphony thought what they were doing was noble. There were moments around campfires when someone would say something invigorating about the importance of art, and everyone would find it easier to sleep that night. At other times it seemed a difficult and dangerous way to survive and hardly worth it…’
Not only were the characters of this novel unlikeable and lacking in substance, but so was the plot. I say the plot, but five days later I hardly remember anything that happened in this book. The fact that the part I enjoyed the most was some characters adapting to the apocalypse inside an airport is probably proof of that, and that occurred a couple of hundred pages in. The novel is comprised of a number of different narratives, which are often similar and sometimes conflict with each other, and moves between the past and the present and back again. It is split into sections with each section in chapters, and just when you think all the chapters in this section concern the present, and one character, in the very next chapter we’re back in the past with a different character entirely. It did not feel as though there was anything of substance beyond the non-linear narration and intertwined plots, as though these things in itself made the book clever and worthy of acclaim. I was under the impression the book would follow the adventures of the Travelling Symphony, instead we meet some of the dead actor’s ex-wives, this one chap who turns up near the beginning and the end purely for exposition, a cult leader who never feels menacing at all… For a book that seemed to want to show the importance of art and beauty even in the time of collapse, and the resilince of humanity, it just felt as though references to Shakespeare, graphic novels and so on were shoe-horned in, to indicate how cultured the author supposed herself to be.
‘This was difficult to explain to young people in the following decades, but in all fairness, the entire history of being stranded in airports up to that point was also a history of eventually becoming unstranded, of boarding a plane and flying away. At first it seemed inevitable that the national Guard would roll in at any moment with blankets and boxes of food […] Day One, Day Two, Day Forty-eight, Day Ninety, any expectation of normalacy long gone by now, then Year One, Year Two, Year Three. Time had been reset by catastrophe.’
There were occasionally passages of strong or beautiful writing, but for the most part Station Eleven felt confused and meandering in its plot, characters, and overall narrative style. A review on the front cover of the copy I own described the book as ‘disturbing, inventive and exciting’ – they must have read a different book.