So far, the reviews I’ve posted here have been pretty rosy. But I think it’s time to change that, as I just finished reading a book that I strongly disliked. Mind you, it takes a lot for me to not like a book. Being a writer myself, I understand, to a certain extent, the profusion of elements that have to come together to make a good book. To not like one means to disparage the hard work of a fellow writer. But I cannot praise Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. I hope that the reasons for my dislike of the book make me just not part of its intended audience, and not a disparager of Ms. Mandel or of the book’s intended genre.
Station Eleven, which was published in 2014, is post-apocalyptic fiction, but differs greatly from any of the YA versions of that genre like Hunger Games or Matched. Indeed, it is more appropriately adult literary dystopian, if I were to assign it a genre. It follows the travails of a tiny Shakespearean travelling symphony after most of the world’s human population has been destroyed by a pandemic called the Georgia Flu. Its premise is highly unique. Its plot zigzags back and forth between fifteen or so years after the pandemic, right before the pandemic, and several years before. Its point of view bounces between six main characters in those time points, showing how they react to the pandemic and its aftermath.
It was very well-received by most, appearing on several “top 10 books of year” lists in 2014 and winning the Arthur C. Clarke award in 2015. It came to me highly recommended by some Facebook friends. Station Eleven was the first audiobook I ever listened to, and I enjoyed it greatly at first as the narrator’s beautiful voice filled my long commutes. It has a very rich, “literary” tone which was initially quite appealing. Add to that the fact that I really wanted to like it because I paid $20 for the audio version of it, and I wanted to understand literary fiction more.
But between the zigzagging plot, bouncing point of view, and a tone that was so rich that it became ponderous, my initial enthusiasm slowly faded, and it became more of a chore to get through the book. I now know that if I liked that genre more–preferred more of an emphasis on commentary on the human condition than fast-moving action–I would have probably loved this book.
But I didn’t. I disliked it very much. The plot zigzags so much that it only creeps forward. I prefer medium-fast to fast-moving plots. The bouncing point of view made it difficult to truly get to know or care for any of the main characters. I prefer a maximum of two points of view in any one book. The backstories of each of those characters are given in exhaustive detail, which slows the plot down even further. I prefer some characterization, but not as much as was supplied. In saying these things, and in differentiating my taste from literary fiction, I hope to clarify that those that like that genre will probably love this book, as might true fans of dystopian fiction.
Bottom line, then? If you’re a fan of true literary or dystopian fiction, run to your nearest bookstore for Station Eleven. If not, stay far, far away from it.