“Sea of Tranquility” by Emily St. John Mandel (Knopf)
Add another talent to Emily St. John Mandel’s impressive resume as a novelist — she’s very good at writing books that defy description in a fewer-than-500-word review! Perhaps that’s all part of the plan. Reader just have to read it.
You certainly won’t read anything here to dissuade you. After the critical acclaim bestowed on the page-to-screen version of HBO’s “Station Eleven,” St. John Mandel fans will no doubt read “Sea of Tranquility.” It’s not a sequel by any means, but it does employ the same kind of narrative time jumping, in this case quite literally, as some characters travel through time. There’s also a couple of real-life pandemics that factor in the plot, both the 1918 flu and COVID-19. Lastly, fans of St. John Mandel’s last novel, “The Glass Hotel” (2020), will enjoy reacquainting themselves with some characters from that novel. You’re even treated to brief glimpses of their futures.
But summarizing the plot in a paragraph is not easy. There are three main settings: Vancouver Island a few years before the First World War, a book tour in 2203 just before the onset of a pandemic that will be much deadlier than COVID-19, and a lunar colony in 2401. Yes, somehow all those settings impact one another and propel the plot, which is driven by first-person passages from the life of a man named Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, who works for the Time Institute, which readers familiar with the plot of the Disney+ series “Loki” will recognize as similar to the Time Variance Authority. Suffice it to say something funky has happened/is happening/will happen with the world’s timeline and by the end of the book you’ll know what.
The journey to the conclusion is a relatively easy read, despite the lofty themes. The chapters are short and while some are head-scratching, you keep going and trust that the puzzle pieces will click into place. As in her other novels, St. John Mandel paints quick scenes with her characters, then moves on to something else. In the tradition of the best sci-fi, there are off-hand references to things like “the Republic of Texas” or the illegality of killing animals either on Earth or the moon. There’s a sense of world building even though we only get glimpses.
That’s 397 words. Enough to motivate you to crack this one open, I hope. It’s a real trip, and one worth taking.
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