Sea of Tranquility

Emily St. John Mandel

Sea of Tranquility
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Sea of Tranquility

Emily St. John Mandel

Edwin St. Andrew is eighteen years old when he crosses the Atlantic by steamship, exiled from English polite society following an ill-conceived diatribe at a dinner party. He enters the forest, spellbound by the beauty of the Canadian wilderness, and suddenly hears the notes of a violin echoing in an airship terminal - an experience that shocks him to his core.

Two centuries later a famous writer named Olive Llewellyn is on a book tour. She’s traveling all over Earth, but her home is the second moon colony, a place of white stone, spired towers and artificial beauty. Within the text of Olive’s bestselling pandemic novel lies a strange passage: a man plays his violin for change in the echoing corridor of an airship terminal as the trees of a forest rise around him.

When Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, a detective in the black-skied Night City, is hired to investigate an anomaly in the North American wilderness, he uncovers a series of lives upended: the exiled son of an aristocrat driven to madness, a writer trapped far from home as a pandemic ravages Earth, and a childhood friend from the Night City who, like Gaspery himself, has glimpsed the chance to do something extraordinary that will disrupt the timeline of the universe.


It’s perhaps inevitable that a book written by an author in lockdown and grappling with a virtual Zoom book tour during a pandemic would feature a character in that exact scenario. In Sea of Tranquility, Olive Llewellyn is that author. In 2203 she’s travelled to Earth from a Moon Colony for a book tour when the virus breaks out. While some readers might want to escape pandemics in fiction, please don’t be deterred. This storyline is but one in Sea of Tranquility, and it is painted authentically, with a humanity and poignancy in which a reader might find solace.

The other seemingly disparate narratives that make up the novel are set in 1912, 2020, 2203 and 2401. They are presented within a deceptively simple structure, with chapters progressing chronologically then sliding back down the scale of the years, ending (almost) where it began with the wonderful, if somewhat aimless, Edwin St. John St. Andrew. Prone to inertia and exiled from the family for an uncharacteristic outburst that revealed his ‘secretly radical views’, Edwin ponders disappearing into wilderness, when he steps into a forest and experiences something quite strange. It is here that he meets Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, the character providing the remarkable thread that runs through the novel and who links the timelines in an astonishing way.

Without revealing too much, readers of Emily St. John Mandel’s previous novels, Station Eleven and The Glass Hotel, may experience a frisson of delight when Sea of Tranquility revisits those familiar worlds. Although it dips into the previous novels you don’t have to have read them: this one stands well and truly on its own. Mandel is an intelligent and poetic writer who finds the heart within all the worlds she depicts, as is evident in her rendering of these futuristic science-fiction scenarios. In her explorations into art, reality, love, plague and time in this novel, I do believe Mandel may have completely blown my mind.

Deborah Crabtree is a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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