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Sea of Tranquility by Emily St John Mandel: Original and eerily prescient

Book review: Canadian author gracefully moves the reader across time and space

Sea of Tranquillity
Author: Emily St John Mandel
ISBN-13: 978-1529083491
Publisher: Picador
Guideline Price: £14.99

“Qua story, it can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next.” EM Forster’s views on good fiction come to mind when reading Emily St John Mandel. Known for her prescient, time-hopping books, the Canadian author is able to spin a decent yarn irrespective of era or genre.

Her novels  include Last Night in Montreal, The Singer’s Gun, The Lola Quartet, The Glass Hotel and Station Eleven, her bestseller about a fictional pandemic that kills millions around the world. First published in 2014, Station Eleven saw renewed interest in recent years – no surprise there – and to date has sold 1.5 million copies and become an  HBO series.

St John Mandel has fun with this success in her latest novel, Sea of Tranquility, where a leading character, Olive Llewellyn, is a famous writer of pandemic fiction. “I’m guessing I’m not the first to ask you what it’s like to be the author of a pandemic novel during a pandemic,” says a journalist in one of many pleasing metaliterary touches throughout eight vibrantly rendered sections.

We first meet Olive in 2203, far away from home on the second moon colony, as she travels Earth in airships to do a jam-packed, exhausting book tour. Murmurings of a new pandemic are downplayed by her publicists, but Olive’s parsing of the situation is wry and intelligent: “If you’re talking about outbreaks of infectious disease, isn’t fairly well contained essentially the same thing as not contained at all?”

Whether the timeframe is 1912 in British Columbia or the bleak, futurised and entirely credible Night City, the book’s insights  resonate with contemporary times. St John Mandel easily holds her own in the company of fellow countrywoman Margaret Atwood, Kate Atkinson and David Mitchell. Sea of Tranquility is original and often revelatory. It is also hugely involving for readers.

Much of the pleasure is in making connections between the different worlds, which offers the satisfaction of a puzzle in novel form: a forest in remote Canada, chess playing, the hydraulic whoosh of an airship, a man with a violin, another called Gaspery whose name comes from a novel that was written by Olive more than 100 years after the man was born. To summarise the plot could take the length of this review, but suffice to say that St John Mandel draws her characters and eras in quick, convincing strokes that delineate the realities of each.

Her skill as a storyteller is seen in the unlikely events and twists that surprise the reader, before seeming instantly inevitable

The various connections through the eras bring cohesion to the time-hopping, as does a judicious mix of ingenious and real-world detail. Here’s an airship hurtling from the Earth to the moon colonies: “The atmosphere turned thin and blue, the blue shaded into indigo, and then – it was like slipping through the skin of a bubble – there was black space.”

With it comes the realisation that “it’s shocking to wake up in one world and find yourself in another by nightfall, but the situation isn’t actually all that unusual. You wake up married, then your spouse dies over the course of the day; you wake in peacetime and by noon your country is at war.”

The scope of this ambitious novel encompasses war, art, pandemics, family, love, time travel and an eerily believable plotline that we may all, in fact, be living in a simulation. As St John Mandel darts through the ages, past, present and future come together in wise soundbites. Order can be relentless. Illness is frightening because it’s chaotic. People are often slow to prepare for the worst. The following quotation refers to viruses and pandemics, but it could equally apply to the timebomb of environmental disaster ticking loudly in the corner of our current age: “We knew it was coming but we didn’t quite believe it, so we prepared in low-key, unobtrusive ways.”

The prose is plain, understated. There is the occasional arresting description, such as a “horrifically featureless horizon” or the novel’s memorable closing lines that hark to Gatsby’s boats ceaselessly borne back. Where the author excels is with structure: her graceful, fluid transitions move the reader across time and space, with frequent self-knowing flourishes that bring lightness to the serious themes. Her command of the narrative comes through in the ease with which she dispenses wisdom and in her succinct but effective characterisation. Her skill as a storyteller, meanwhile, is seen in the unlikely events and twists that surprise the reader, before seeming instantly inevitable.

Above all, St John Mandel is a writer who looks at world events – war, pandemics, climate change – straight in the eye and speaks to the heart of inaction. “That ancient horror, too embarrassingly irrational to be articulated aloud: if you say the name of the thing you fear, might you attract that thing’s attention?”