Books & Literature

Book Review: Sea of Tranquility, by Emily St. John Mandel

LITERARY FICTION: The award-winning author of Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel returns with a novel of time travel that precisely captures the reality of our current moment.

An enthralling story of time-travel, regret, love, the universe, and everything!

Emily St. John Mandel is a writer of extraordinary range. Her last novel, The Glass House, was based around a Ponzi scheme. With The Sea of Tranquility, she returns to the speculative framework which she last used in the very successful post-pandemic Station Eleven (recently made into a mini-series).

The story begins in 1912 with a young British man, Edwin, exiled from his family to live in Canada. We then jump to 2020 where Mirella tries to find her best friend, from whom she was estranged years before, by attending a concert by the friend’s brother. Next stop is 2203 and novelist Olive has travelled from her home in a moon colony to do a book tour of earth for the release of her latest novel. Finally, we reach 2401 and Gaspery-Jacques, investigator with the Time Institute, is sent to investigate an anomaly in time which may indicate that humans are living in a simulation.

It all sounds crazy and confusing. But the reader is in Mandel’s safe hands. This gentle, almost poetic, exploration of ideas of time and space has people firmly at its centre. Much of her previous work has looked at ideas of non-linearity, whether in speculative settings, or in more naturalistic settings. She has dipped into ideas of the life-unlived, the life that could-have-been, and the tiny, ordinary, moments that can constitute a fork in the road. The Sea of Tranquility takes those ideas and enlarges them across time and space. She has not set out to write a full-service sci-fi, but has rather used some of its tropes to explore ideas of human connection, regret, grief, and love.

At the heart of the work (both thematically and physically) is Olive’s story: a novelist on an exhausting book tour in the United States while a pandemic begins to break out. Mandel has clearly had fun here. Along with being a subtle and moving memoir, it delivers humour with the types of questions authors are constantly asked by both journalists and the reading public. And several somewhat depressing hints that even 200 years from now women will be asked who is taking care of the children while they work, and being under-mined and under-estimated by men:

“…she sat next to a business traveller who wanted to tell her about his job, which had something to do with detecting counterfeit steel… ‘And what do you do?’ the other traveller asked finally.

‘I write books, ‘Olive said.

‘For children?’ he asked.”

The Sea of Tranquility is deliciously readable, intriguing, moving, and ultimately satisfying. For those new to Mandel, it is a great place to start, with a surprisingly light touch compared to some of her other works. This is an author who always places, front-and-centre, the duty of a writer to produce an enthralling story.

Another winner from Mandel.

Reviewed by Tracey Korsten
Twitter: @TraceyKorsten

This review is the opinion of the reviewer and not Glam Adelaide.

Distributed by: Pan Macmillan Australia
Released: April 2022
RRP: $32.99

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