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Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Sea of Tranquility by Emily St John Mandel review – a time-travelling triumph | Fiction

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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.

Sea of Tranquility by Emily St John Mandel is published by Picador (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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