"Sea of Tranquility" | Reviewed by Nelson Appell
In Emily St. John Mandel’s “Sea of Tranquility,” the author makes a fascinating return to Science Fiction. In her breakthrough fourth novel “Station Eleven” she explored a future worldwide pandemic that was published well before the age of COVID-19. “Station Eleven” was the local libraries’ NEA Big Read selection in 2019, so many local readers will be familiar with her work.
I loved the “Sea of Tranquility.” It begins in 1912 when Edwin St. Andrew, an exiled aristocrat from England with an allowance, moves to the Western Canadian wilderness. On the beach, he has a mysterious encounter with a priest and an equally mysterious, inexplicable vision of being inside a building and hearing violin music.
To get the answer to this mystery, you will have to read to the end, and pass through the lives of many other characters with mysterious encounters and visions in the years 2020, 2203, and 2401, when the moon and outer solar system have been colonized. How does it all line up, and how does this 1912 mystery in Western Canada relate to the moon on 2203?
Mandel’s last novel, “The Glass House,” was also partially set in the Western Canadian islands. And it’s no accident that this novel visits there, too. In a nice and unexpected touch, she revisits some of those same “The Glass House” characters, who are part of a mystery that take 400 years to resolve itself.
She is riffing on her life as a writer, on her previous books, criticism of her writing, pandemics, and the nature of time, among other things. Recurring pandemics are a prominent theme, as she explores their effects on society and the individual.
Olive Llewellyn, a writer in 2203, has a writing career remarkably similar to Mandel’s own career. One of the criticisms of Lewellyn’s writing is that her stories just seem to end, without a proper buildup (a criticism that is sometimes levied at Mandel).
The early chapters build up the mystery while introducing a wide cast of characters. The last few chapters start to unravel the mystery, as Mandel guides us through the twisting plots. It’s worth the journey, as the twists keep coming until the final pages. The ending itself is clever, almost as if she is responding to the criticism of her stories themselves that she introduces into the novel.
While I appreciated the twisting ending, I felt the journey is more important, to walk alongside Mandel while she explores her previous stories, her life, criticism as an artist, and pandemics through her fiction.
If you liked her previous books, this is a must read!