Time travel, moon colonies, pandemics (plural), potential corruption of what we think is reality, and more: Writing a whirlwind pitch for Emily St. John Mandel’s latest novel, Sea of Tranquility, would be a most unenviable task.
Such a broad and ambitious scope might make one think the Canadian-born, New York-based author’s latest must be a sprawling doorstop of a book. But St. John Mandel’s taut, thoughtful prose keeps things under 300 pages, a propulsive read that often favors feel over detail. Written shortly after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, it offers ruminations on parenthood, family, and isolation throughout.
St. John Mandel’s fourth novel, 2014 station eleven, featured a post-pandemic society where civilization has crumbled, nature heals, and the importance of art is highlighted. It was a runaway bestseller and saw a resurgence in sales as our real-life pandemic unfolded, bolstered by last year’s gorgeous HBO adaptation. Her next novel, 2020 The glass hotel, chronicled a Ponzi scheme and the impact it had on a range of characters (living and dead). He was shortlisted for the Giller Prize and, as sea of tranquilitywas slated for a television adaptation at HBO, by the same creative team behind station eleven. St. John Mandel’s Last Book references the previous two books, although in a different way.
sea of tranquility opens in 1912, the oldest of the chronologies of the book. We meet Edwin St. John St. Andrew, recently exiled from his home in England and starting over in Canada. Edwin starts in Halifax then settles in Victoria before heading to the remote colony of Caiette in British Columbia (also located in The glass hotel).
Wandering through the woods, Edwin has a bizarre, almost paranormal, blackout-like experience – the feeling of being in a vast indoor space, the sound of a violin, the people around him, the sound of hissing – before coming to his senses.
This disturbing phenomenon appears in all sea of tranquilitynarrative threads. St. John Mandel then takes us to the present day, where a composer presents a piece of music synchronized with video footage shot by his late sister Vincent (of The glass hotel) of the same penomenon, in these same woods, 100 years after Edwin.
In the 23rd century, we meet Olive Llewellyn, a replacement for St. John Mandel, in a clever little piece of self-fiction. Olive lives in a lunar colony, but we first meet her on an Earth book tour for her novel. Marienbad – who, like station eleven, apparently predicted a devastating global pandemic and, when it actually happened, became a bestseller. As the first hints of a new pandemic begin on Earth, Olive must decide whether to continue the book tour or retire to the Moon to be with her child.