This novel somehow manages to feel both huge and intimate.
Its mere 255 pages span centuries. We start with Edwin – a man emigrating from England to Canada in 1912, then Mirella – a woman trying to reconnect with a friend in 2020, then to Olive Llewellyn, an author on a book tour in the 2200s who was born in a moon colony, and finally in 2401 with Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, who grew up in the same moon colony as Olive – only 200 years later when the artificial light of the dome had broken, exposing the wide openness of space and causing the colony to take on the name ‘Night City’.
What binds them all together in a plot sense is some connection to a strange anomaly. Edwin, walking in the woods in 1912, suddenly seems to hear a violin playing and a whoosh… he thinks perhaps like in a station. In Olive Llewellyn’s most famous book there is a passage in an airship terminal where a violinist is playing and suddenly it seems there are forest trees all about. A video captured by Mirella’s lost friend in the same forest has a blip in it – a blip involving a violin playing and again the sound of a large indoor space. Gaspery, looking back from the future, is a small part of the investigation into this anomaly.
That could make the book sound very plot driven – the road to uncovering the mystery of the anomaly. This very much is what the Goodreads blurb makes it sound like:
When Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, a detective in the 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 earl 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.Goodreads
Reading this alone, I would imagine a plot heavy book driven by a strong willed detective on a highfalutin quest. But actually this book’s power for me was in its ideas and thematic discourse. Despite the time-leaping narrative, there is something sweetly intimate about its characters. At the beginning of the novel Gaspery is actually a security guard rather than a detective, and only switches jobs to become an underling contributing to the anomaly investigation because he has never had an interesting job before. The ‘extraordinary thing’ he glimpses that may ‘disrupt the timeline of the universe’ is also very human. Honestly less universe-defying than it is simply… kind. But perhaps that is what is so extraordinary about it.
Sea of Tranquility looks at a number of themes that feel close to our experience right now. Plague is a big one. The loss of loved ones through illness, the terrible randomness of it, and the fear that accompanies it. The rather constant sense of the ending of the world.
“Pandemics don’t approach like wars, with the distant thud of artillery growing louder every day and flashes of bombs on the horizon. The arrive in retrospect, essentially.Sea of Tranquility, Emily St John Mandel
In Olive Llewellyn, it is also difficult not to see parallels to Mandel’s own experience, as the author of a successful pandemic novel (Station Eleven) in a new pandemic. The internal musings of Olive are made all the more interesting and touching when viewed in that light. There were many passages (only a small handful of which are included in this review) that made me think and wonder.
“You write a book with a fictional tattoo and then the tattoo becomes real in the world and after that almost anything seems possible. She’d seen five of those tattoos, but that didn’t make it less extraordinary, seeing the way fiction can bleed into the world and leave a mark on someone’s skin.”Sea of Tranquility, Emily St John Mandel
I am in awe of how Mandel structured and paced the novel to make me care. From around the half-way point, this was genuinely a case of being unable to put the book down. I’ve been glued to it this last 24 hours, only breaking off by necessity when holding a child, cooking a dinner or riding a bike. The thing about time-leaping narratives in books is that they enable you to see the end of a character before they see it themselves. It can be slipped in without drama, but experienced by the reader with such pathos that it hurts. My kind of book, essentially.
This is the strange lesson of living in a pandemic: life can be tranquil in the face of death.Sea of Tranquility, Emily St John Mandel, p195 of hardback
As with Station Eleven, I was really taken by how sweetly and intimately this novel deals with death, while also saying interesting things that feel much bigger – more universal. I felt like I was on the end of a camera lens, sometimes panning out to view humanity in its long and meandering history, with its juxtaposition of repetition and newness, and sometimes zooming in to see one moment in detail.
“If there’s pleasure in action, there’s peace in stillness.”Sea of Tranquility, Emily St John Mandel
So yes, read this book if you haven’t already! It’s a quick read but one I will be thinking about for a very long time.