For the first 3/5 of this ominous novella, I was with it all the way. It's almost deliriously creepy, but the best thing about it is Mitchell2.5 stars
For the first 3/5 of this ominous novella, I was with it all the way. It's almost deliriously creepy, but the best thing about it is Mitchell's sensitive and fine-tuned writing. He perfectly captures and draws out the characters of the first 4 stories and their diverse voices: a timid, odd little boy from the 1970s; an aggressive police officer from the 1980s; a depressed female student in the 1990s; and a lesbian writer with a secret in the 00s. Each of these characters are so well evoked that I felt sure they would get away, and, like the best horror novels, I'm wishing for it. There are moments that are absolutely heartbreaking due to Mitchell's craft.
But an unwelcome development lurked around the fourth story in this novella. It's not helped by the odd structure of this book, which did leave me wondering where it would go. It's like a hybrid between a novella and a short story collection; though the links between characters become gradually more pronounced as the stories go on, the plot, as it can be conventionally understood, hardly builds at all. That's not a problem, per se, though it did leave me with the feeling that if anyone but David Mitchell had submitted this, it wouldn't have been published, and it also means that I found the overriding "solution" to the story extremely weak and disappointing.
I haven't read The Bone Clocks, but I feel like it might clear up the last section of the story a lot. Still, I resent that - this is not a sequel in any traditional means and the first 85% of it passes without any suggestion of it being anything other than standalone, until one of the most significant characters from Mitchell's earlier novels, The Bone Clocks, appears. I guess this might feel less random and jarring if I had read that book. Suddenly, it takes a deep dive from being a seriously ominous magical realism/horror novel to being an unsatisfactory kind of fantasy novel, which leaves it either under-explained or over-explained, and don't ask me how a book that can be both of those things at once, but that's where I was with Slate House.
By the last page, my patience and previous goodwill to this book had shrivelled up. Having started off as a magical-psychological take on the haunted house genre, it becomes a pale imitation of fantasy cliches and tropes. Everything that should have be left creepily unsolved got wrapped up in a neat bow and, even worse, in a magical/fantastical version of the bad guy's monologue which stretches on barely interrupted for whole pages at a time. There are enough good here to sustain a strong 3-star rating, but since Mitchell packed most of his plotting alongside all of his explanation into the last two chapters, it gets 2.5 stars, rounded down. ...more
There's so much to say that I don't know where, or if, I'll begin. For now, I'll just say this: one of the most haunting, original, and brilliant noveThere's so much to say that I don't know where, or if, I'll begin. For now, I'll just say this: one of the most haunting, original, and brilliant novels I've ever read.
"We were not meant for this world. Let us go home." -- a quotation from the only pages of Station Eleven we see.
Also, the marker that reminds me that, although I cried along the way, this is one of the only books that concluded with me bursting dramatically into tears.
Station Eleven moved me more deeply and intensely than any book has, perhaps ever. Emily St John Mandel has created a book that now, after reading it, I will always think about the following things differently: aeroplanes, airports, smartphones, phone lines, and flu.
This book also convinced me that I was getting flu for the first time in my life. A public safety warning for anyone who hasn't read it.
I put off reading it for so long because I was convinced it would be a plucky survivor's story set in a post-apocalyptic world. It's not, it's really not. In fact, it's not to the point where, if I'm assessing it critically, I did feel that it could surprisingly have done with more of it (!); I'd prefer to have read a chapter about V's escape from Connecticut on a bicycle, or Javeen's future wife, Daria, and the staff of McKinley Stevenson Davis, who survive simply because they had the luck to go out of town to a team building camp in the middle of nowhere. I loathe team building events, and the book maybe made me rethink that, too.
(No, but seriously. Would it be better to survive with your workmates? At least you have some semblance of community and a support system, unlike swathes of the population like Kirsten, whose family disappears except for her brother, who dies by cutting himself on a needle and joins a feral gang. Or worse? You lose your family - I mean, there's a chance they are among the 0.4% of the world's population still living, but that's extremely unlikely and, even so, you will never see them again - and instead you're stuck with a bunch of people that you probably don't like and were thrown together by chance.)
This book does grief brilliantly. I say that as someone who resists grief narratives because they seem too - pat? easy? But Mandel does something amazing here, and induced me to mourn the world, and to feel genuinely grateful with my surroundings. That sounds so twee, I know, but what makes this book work so well is that it doesn't feel moralistic (at least, not to me). It's what she gets out of the smallest things in this world. Let's talk about the best scene in the novel: the airport scene.
Clark is stranded in an airport. He assumes someone will come. Nobody comes. He tries to stay sane from reading work reports, but can only obsess over how many of those people are now dead. He tries to talk (in his head) to his boyfriend, and imagines that it will be like all the other mundane crises where they eventually become "unstranded". His boyfriend's voice grows dimmer every day. He watches the decline and collapse of society on the airport's TV: looted malls, anchors falling asleep or bursting into tears as they describe the havoc, and how the word apocalypse gradually creeps into televised discussion. On some channels, they announce that they are letting their staff go home to be with their families. Another channel randomly switches over to America's Got Talent, and everyone just sits there and watches it. Well, what else is there to do?
What made this book really stand out for me was the feeling of existential despair. That might seem overly pessimistic given what people have described (rightly) as the tender tone of the novel. But a hundred of little moments stuck out when I tried to evaluate if I found it optimistic. On the first night of the end of the world, Javeen is at a production of King Lear with his girlfriend, Laura. After getting a tipoff from one of his doctor friends (who tends to patient zero in one of the creepiest vignettes I've ever read - and it's all reported speech!), he decides to get Laura and his disabled brother, Frank, and get out of Toronto. His doctor friend calls back: it's worse than they thought. Knowing he won't be able to leave Toronto tonight, Javeen instead leaves Laura behind and goes to Frank alone. It's not underlined by Mandel, but that's what happens at the end of the world. You hold onto what, and who, you can't live without, and that will probably be less than you thought.
This was only slightly undermined by how Mandel skated around every violent scene. We know that there are a massive amount of riots, murders, and rapes at the end of the world, because she tells us (as does human nature). In one way, it's refreshing that, unlike most post-apocalyptic novels, it doesn't wallow in savagery or faux-deep nihilism. Sometimes, though, it felt a little too - easy? Yes, Kirsten is the closest thing the book has to a main character, and we know she was the victim of an attempted rape (which led to her killing the man), and something so horrific that her brother, Peter, refused to tell her what it was before he died. She can't remember it, and prefers it that way. Can't say I blame her, but too often it felt like Mandel wanted to preserve her delicate, gentle charity to the human race and in doing so, avert the huge amount of violence and suffering. There are lots of scenes where perspective characters look on to horrors happening, via TV sets or out of windows, but these are disguised and written around as if Mandel thinks she might offend our sensibilities by writing them.
A few other niggles. So a horrifying amount of people died (99.6% of everyone), but why does nobody get sick once they venture outside? A lot of these people survived just by hanging around in rural or remote corners - so what happened to the people who stayed in the airport, for example? Mandel implies they got lucky and didn't come into contact with anyone sick, but they are described passing people who are sick. Why did none of them get sick from touching the surfaces that infected people had touched, or when they exited the airport (which, admittedly, they didn't do very often, but they did do, to get food and even checked out hotels and restaurants in some cases)? This is a minor quibble, but given how horrendously infectious Georgia Flu is meant to be - everyone who gets it dies; though one character is implied to have natural immunity, we never meet a single person who has recovered from it - it bothered me nonetheless.
But there is so much thought-provoking, intense, and devastating beauty in this novel. It didn't feel like one novel to me; it felt like so many, winding and weaving in and out of each other, with the delicacy and skill of beautiful wool. Don't think of that unspeakable decision. Don't think about what enforcing that decision would have required. Don't think about those last few hours on board, a character tells himself. Yet in this intelligent and sparse writing, we can't help but think; we are engaged. As Mandel perfectly portrays from the beginning, this is our world. There are rumours of the Georgia flu from, well, Georgia (and Russia). Nobody really cares, because they're busy people living their life.
Sometimes I was irritated by the exploits of some people connected to Arthur: there didn't need to be so much musing on the life of a working actor and his fame. Though it did pay off beautifully with Kirsten staring longingly at the old clippings from pre-outbreak, there was still too much. If his third wife wasn't going to appear, what was the point in her even having existed when his other wives (and even his mistress) had roles of varying significance? Isn't it a little iffy that the characters who were from Jerusalem, and the only ones who were implied, if my memory to live anywhere else but Europe, Canada, or North America, turned out to be violent, cult-leader religious fanatics?
But then the mundane horror would pay off. One of the female characters, one of the largest supporting characters, seems to have plot armour due to her importance in the wider story -- and then she gets the Flu and dies on a beach. Another moment where I teared up. Mandel is absolutely an artist at the top of her craft. It's demonstrated perfectly by a short scene when Arthur puts his house in order and gives his twenty-something mistress a wonderful gift, a moment of unbearable optimism and poignancy before the carnage, and Mandel doesn't forget that:
He saw Tanya across the stage again - already in the final week of her life, the Georgia Flu so close now - and then a stagehand appeared near him
It's that sense of the looming presence, something much bigger than you. We won't all be remembered, but at one point or another, we all mattered. If that sounds hyperbolic, it's because of Mandel's brilliance and subtlety, which functions almost as a tick tock on the narrative. Enjoy yourself, she almost says, because it's later than you think....more