Book review: Sea of Tranquility, by Emily St John Mandel

Whether you read Emily St John Mandel’s new time travelling novel as an addition to her earlier books or as a work in its own right, it will not be time wasted, writes Stuart Kelly
Emily St John Mandel was born and raised on Denman Island off the west coast of British Columbia. Photograph: Sarah ShatzEmily St John Mandel was born and raised on Denman Island off the west coast of British Columbia. Photograph: Sarah Shatz
Emily St John Mandel was born and raised on Denman Island off the west coast of British Columbia. Photograph: Sarah Shatz

For the avoidance of doubt, let me say that I really enjoyed, was moved by, and was intrigued by the puzzle of Emily St John Mandel’s new novel, Sea Of Tranquillity. There is, however, a slight niggle. I admired both Station Eleven and The Glass Hotel, so much so that I bought her back list and thoroughly enjoyed them as well. But the question that wormed away at me is how much was my enjoyment of this book dependent upon having read the previous ones? I think – other opinions are no doubt available – that is possible to read it as a standalone novel; but I know that having read the other books made this a richer and deeper experience.

It is, like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, a nested novel. It begins in 1912, with the rather listless and feckless Edwin St John St Andrew being effectively exiled to Canada for his radical opinions by his aristocratic family. There is little of the plucky pioneer about Edwin. In fact, he thinks that no family, no job, just a few simple pleasures and clean sheets to fall into at the end of the day, plus a regular allowance from home, is the life for him. The jolt in this comes when he and a friend travel north. Tentatively entering the forest, he meets a priest under a maple tree and is afflicted by some sort of incident: he hears a violin playing, a whooshing noise, a blackout, and feels a sense of dislocation.

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No sooner are we introduced to him but the narrative moves forward to 2020 in a section entitled “Mirella and Vincent”. These are both characters from The Glass Hotel. Mirella attends a concert performance of Vincent’s brother’s avant-garde violin music, which incorporates video. One of the videos, shot by Vincent, has an inexplicable glitch in it. A man in a fedora muscles into the conversation Mirella is having with Vincent’s brother about her disappearance; and in a queasy epiphany she realises that she had seen the fedora man when she was a child. At a murder scene.

Sea of Tranquility, by Emily St John MandelSea of Tranquility, by Emily St John Mandel
Sea of Tranquility, by Emily St John Mandel

The third section, set in the future, concerns a novelist, Olive Llewellyn, on a book tour. She grew up on a lunar colony and her publicity circuit is to do with the TV tie-in reprint of an earlier book, Marienbad, about a pandemic. Much of Marienbad seems eerily similar to Station Eleven, which was adapted for television. (In reality there is an “open source” avant-garde novel by Mark Leach called Marienbad My Love, based very loosely on Alain Resnais’s film Last Year in Marienbad). Given the similarities with Station Eleven, St John Mandel has a lot of sardonic and mildly snarky fun about the kind of questions authors get asked at book festivals, particularly when they have written a postmodern apocalyptic bestseller. More importantly, one of the journalists her asks quite insistently if she ever had a strange experience in Oklahoma City Airship Terminal.

Then further into the future. St John Mandel frequently refused to characterise Station Eleven as science fiction, but there is no dodging the label this time around. Zoey is a high flier in a secretive scientific institute; her brother Gaspary is a bit of a drifter. They grew up on Colony 2 on the moon, called Night City since the artificial light went on the fritz, and next to a house where Olive Llewellyn once lived. Zoey is working on an anomaly: time travel exists and something seems to be bleeding or seeping in time. Gaspary cajoles and pleads and studies until he allowed to become a chrononaut and investigate the anomaly.

The reason for its importance is that it might be proof that we are living in a simulation. This, and the inevitability of time travel being a real melon-scratcher full of pitfalls and paradoxes, gives the novel its intellectual heft. But, as I have often said, nobody wants to read novels about two blind men playing chess in the dark. The novel has to have affective traction to be more than a crossword. There is plenty of that here. Edwin’s generation of privilege struggles with colonial guilt, and is pitiably unaware of where the world is heading. Mirella is dealing with grief, that particular grief of not-knowing rather than trying to reconcile to loss. For Olive, the shadows of past pandemics and pandemics still to come colour her tetchiness with impertinent questions. All of them are trying to deal with displacement, with not being what people want or need them to be. None of them, crucially, have answers to the riddle that is the world.

In the crux section with Zoey and Gaspary we do get a sense of closure, in terms of what the Anomaly is and why it stitches together these lives. It is also about abandonment, loneliness and the difficulty of making the right choice among a variety of wrong options. That it does tie things up with panache and elegance is a joy. Along the way there are “aside” meditations on things – such as Olive being staggered by a reader who has a tattoo of a phrase that is tattooed on one of her characters’ arms (“We knew it was coming”) and the fraying between fiction and fact. St John Mandel is an intelligent, acute and sympathetic writer, and whether you read this as a “bonus chapter” or a work in its own right, it will not be time wasted.

Sea of Tranquility, by Emily St John Mandel, Picador, £14.99