A REVIEW OF
Sea of Tranquility
By Emily St. John Mandel
Alfred A. Knopf
Hardcover, 272 pages
Insightful, enduring novel contemplates time travel, art, meaning of life
By John Caleb Grenn
Special to the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger
USA TODAY NETWORK
In a world where we have now collectively suffered through our own disaster fiction plot since Covid-19 came onto the scene, writing fresh and impressive speculative fiction must be the ultimate task for an author to take on. “Sea of Tranquility” is that ultimate task for Emily St. John Mandel. Not only does Mandel take it on, she succeeds and achieves an excellent novel that is simultaneously a quick-paced page-turner and a contemplative meditation on meaning.
For fans of Mandel’s two most recent novels “Station Eleven” and “The Glass Hotel,” readers will delight in “Sea of Tranquility,” arguably her best. It concurrently creates something entirely new while regarding and nodding to her most well-read prior works. Readers will encounter similar themes revolving around the substantiality and sustainability of art and beauty, and they will yet again be renewed by Mandel’s crisp language and exceptional pacing.
From the first pages, we are introduced to Edwin St. John St. Andrew, a characteristically gentle but sometimes fiery young man cast out of his family to seek new opportunities in Canada in the early 1900s. Then, one century later readers meet Mirella Kessler who has just learned tragic news about the death of a friend. Third, we meet Olive Llewellyn, an author from the 23rd century who has risen to fame for a novel about a flu pandemic. Long time fans will not help but be able to note that Olive serves as quite the stand-in for Mandel herself.
All the characters, though in different centuries, share a parallel experience: a brief and sudden black-out moment filled with the sense of being in a large, echoing hall, the sound of a hydraulic whooshing, and a hint of violin music. They also will all have met the mysterious Gaspery Roberts.
At last, at the turn of the 25th century, the story turns to Roberts who has just begun a new job working with his sister at the ‘Time Institute’ in research of just what exactly these characters, sprinkled through time, encountered.
This novel has something for everyone: speculative fiction, historical fiction, science writing, space travel, music, Shakespeare, art. For the binge-reader, it’s an evening of flawless page turning. More distracted readers with busy schedules shouldn’t fear, though—though this novel is unputdownable, the brief chapters make the novel easy to return to later.
While enthusiasts of the recently published “Cloud Cuckoo Land” by Anthony Doerr and “The Anomaly” by Hervé Le Tellier may be especially drawn to this type of work, Mandel sets herself and her novel apart with her keen ability to tease meaning from the ordinary, present moment as well as illustrate magic in the routine and the commonplace. Feeling a longing nostalgia for a run-down moon colony founded centuries ago was new for me.
A novel often filled with inevitable feelings of loneliness and loss, “Sea of Tranquility” also offers hope. That is, hope in a future for humanity after conquering many of our modern 21st century troubles as well as hope for art, music, and literature as timeless human traditions that carry on hundreds of years into the future.
“Sea of Tranquility” is uniquely a novel that, while astonishing us with an alluring, often fast-paced tale, somehow subtly spends time reflecting upon itself. Enduring, contemplative, and insightful, it is exactly the kind of high-tier literature fiction lovers should expect in a world post-2020. Much like the violin notes that echo through time demonstrated in its pages, “Sea of Tranquility” is a lasting work that readers even three centuries from now (or three centuries ago) can both enjoy and revere.
John Caleb Grenn is a Med-Peds physician at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. He is an avid reader of literary fiction and enjoys spending his time off either at Lemuria Books or enjoying his purchases on his porch in Fondren.