It is a bold author who heads off potential criticisms of their work with a self-aware allusion, but in Emily St John Mandel’s ambitious new novel, the character of the writer Olive Llewellyn is confronted by an unimpressed reader in a book-signing queue. Her interlocutor impatiently claims “there were all these strands, narratively speaking, all these characters, and I felt like I was waiting for them to connect, but they didn’t ultimately”.
Some may agree with this as a description of Sea of Tranquility, but it also elegantly anticipates censure of this thought-provoking read. Over its spare length, St John Mandel’s book juggles a variety of storylines, loosely connected by the pivotal character of the time-travelling detective Gaspery-Jacques Roberts. He has been sent back from the far-distant future to interact with apparently disparate figures, from the 23rd-century novelist Olive to the disgraced “remittance man” Edwin St Andrew, making his uncertain way in 1912 Canada. The recurring motif that unites them all is the sound of a violin heard in an unnatural setting; its significance becomes increasingly clear as the narrative progresses.
Anyone who has read Cloud Atlas – or indeed St John Mandel’s breakout novel Station Eleven – will be familiar with the time-hopping, symmetrical structure that she adopts, but this remains a fiercely original creation. Some aspects of the novel are especially enjoyable; the Olive strand, in which her book tour is imperilled by a deadly pandemic, combines satire with light-touch contemporary resonance, and the opening Canada material is so offbeat that you wish it could continue for longer. But the combination of speculative science-fiction drama with contemporary concerns grips throughout. Colonialism, misogyny and environmental disaster are all touched upon, but without unduly didactic emphasis.
At one point, a character muses: “Isn’t that why we’re here? To leave a mark on wilderness?” St John Mandel’s tender and idiosyncratic novel will undeniably make its own mark on its readers’ imaginations.