Review: Sea of Tranquility

Emily St. John Mandel has done it again. That’s the feeling I was left with upon turning the last page of Sea of Tranquility. Utterly transfixed throughout, and totally entertained.

Where Mandel’s most famous novel Station Eleven was eerily prophetic and ahead of its cultural moment, Sea of Tranquility is both reflective and hopeful. Humanity will weather storms over and over, this novel projects. We as a species will always feel on the edge of collapse. But fighting to find the meaning of life can obscure us to the fact we are living it. This is the message pulsing through Mandel’s new novel.

A young man in 1912 hears the spellbinding sound of a violin through a forest – an episode which is experienced by individuals across time and space. When realising the pattern through history, Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, a detective in the Night City, sets upon trying to find a link between the moments in time. If his working theory is proven correct, the reality of their entire history, present, and future is entirely in question.

Mandel is a master of narrative tapestry, and like Station Eleven, this novel maps multiple timelines, following different characters across them. But here, there is a different sense of pace and direction, and characters overlap more clearly than her now TV adapted novel. There is charm in the mystery of this trick, granted, but readers may find Sea of Tranquility less of an enigma – while every drop as intriguing.

Mandel thrills with some cheeky self-referential lines which made me feel as giddy as when watching celebrity cameos in films. Some of the more real, border line auto-fictional elements teetered on the edge of jarring – but ultimately were poignant and thoughtful. There’s subtle reference to the events of The Glass Hotel, Mandel’s previous novel, making her work feel further interconnected. Admittedly, I felt less engaged in moments that mirrored our recent experience of COVID-19 than the brightly imagined futures and interwoven past timelines.

That said, the tapestry comes together with a stunning finesse, and Mandel left me once again in awe of her skill. Her writing style is like a dance. It’s eloquent and it’s succinct. It had me diving for the next page. I long for her pictures of human futures of 2200s and 2400s, which are drawn so vividly and visually I can almost smell them. And with each new section, the novel meandered to surprising trajectories. In Sea of Tranquility, you’ll hang on Mandel’s every word.

By Rory McNeill