BookBrowse Reviews Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel

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Sea of Tranquility

A novel

by Emily St. John Mandel

Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel X
Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2022, 272 pages

    Mar 2023, 272 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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About this Book



An author, a soldier and a time traveler orbit one another's lives in this luminous novel spanning centuries.

In 1912, 18-year-old Edwin St. John St. Andrew arrives in Canada, having been banished from his posh home in England after making inappropriate comments about the colonization of India at dinner with guests present. Six years later, Edwin will return from the Western Front a broken man, having survived a war that killed his brothers, his lover and all of his friends.

In 2203, author Olive Llewellyn, a resident of the second moon colony, travels to Earth for a book tour in support of her novel, Marienbad. The book is about a fictional pandemic, and a real one breaks out in Australia while Olive is on Earth and quickly spreads throughout the world. Olive makes it home to her family safely, but she is haunted by what might have been, and what is for so many around her. The other authors she met on her book tour are dead.

Meanwhile, in 2401, Gaspery-Jacques Roberts begins working at the Time Institute, investigating an anomaly that scientists believe may prove that what we think of as reality is actually a simulation. The truth lies in a small Canadian hamlet called Caiette, where an ethereal fragment of violin music rings through a grove of trees.

Readers of Mandel's previous novel The Glass Hotel will recognize Caiette, as well as Vincent and Paul Smith, and Vincent's friend Mirella, who are featured in a timeline set in 2020. Prior knowledge of these characters and their relationships to one another is not necessary to read Sea of Tranquility, but the author is fond of weaving threads together through her novels and she does it exceptionally well. Mandel is instinctively self-referential in a way that rewards loyal readers.

The most interesting and perhaps the most moving personal touch is found in the rendering of Olive Llewellyn's book tour and the aftermath. Mandel has undoubtedly drawn from her own experience as the author of a well-known book about a pandemic, and her experience living through COVID-19 as a writer, a wife and a mother. On the tour, Olive is asked how it feels to be living through a pandemic after writing about one so vividly in her novel, a question Mandel has surely fielded many times. (When one googles "Emily St. John Mandel" one of the first autofill suggestions is "Emily St. John Mandel COVID.") Olive has a husband and daughter, just as Mandel does. Talking about her novel, the narrator explains, "meant talking about the end of the world while trying not to imagine the world ending with her daughter in it."

Why are we drawn to apocalyptic fiction? It's a question posed during one of Olive's book tour stops, and she ultimately lands on the idea that the end of the world is a common fascination because the world is ending all the time. The world ended for Edwin St. Andrew when nearly everyone he knew and loved died, for instance. Loneliness is a palpable theme in the novel, almost unbearably so. But the web of connectivity among the characters makes them members of a community, even if they don't get to know themselves how they fit into a larger picture.

Like The Glass Hotel and Station Eleven, Sea of Tranquility is concerned with deep philosophical questions. The author considers the nature of reality, time and memory, the significance of art in perilous times, and what we owe one another as fellow human beings. Gaspery, in particular, models the notion that there is no act more heroic than helping a stranger at great personal sacrifice.

Are we living in a simulation? Sea of Tranquility suggests that the answer doesn't matter. We are architects of our own fates, along with those who surround us, exerting their influence, guiding us intentionally or accidentally setting us on a new path. We're connected through time to people and places we can scarcely imagine.

If that prospect sounds a little too rosy, you've never read an Emily St. John Mandel novel. Any happy endings come at the cost of significant heartache.

Reviewed by Lisa Butts

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in April 2022, and has been updated for the April 2023 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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Beyond the Book:
  Fictional Pandemics


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