Sea of Tranquility
By Emily St. John Mandel
(255 pages, fiction, 2022)
Emily St. John Mandel’s newest release, Sea of Tranquility, unfolds in a series of vignettes across a span of nearly five hundred years. It’s a spiderweb of characters across time, all facing similar themes of displacement and grief, and each of these threads is tied to a single anomalous phenomenon.
Sea of Tranquility is one of those books that you can’t divulge too much plot information for fear of ruining the experience for future readers. The novel begins with a young English man traveling to Canada in the early nineteen-hundreds, both disowned from his family and searching for a new life. He is the first to experience the reality-bending phenomenon in question. From there, St. John Mandel darts to a character in the early 2000’s looking for answers after discovering her friend has died. Then, two hundred years later, we meet an author named Olive during a book tour for her recent pandemic novel. In the distant future, a detective named Gaspery-Jacques Roberts investigates each of the cast of characters and their involvement in this strange occurrence. The reader is forced to piece together what is happening through the limited interactions we get with each character.
St. John Mandel builds some suspense in the first few chapters by withholding some information as we swap between characters before an “aha!” moment early on. The author’s craft is notably present here and succeeds. It’s difficult to hold your reader’s attention by giving them just enough bread crumbs to follow instead of giving up the whole loaf of bread all at once. Then, just when you think you have a grip on what’s happening, a wrench is thrown into the mix. It’s not a complete left turn, more of a combination of current theories we’re seeing in science and science fiction alike.
Admittedly, this is my first foray into Emily St. John Mandel’s work. A friend recommended the book to me knowing I’m a frequent sci-fi reader. I found St. John Mandel’s prose quite beautiful and the story moved along at a great pace. That being said, I wasn’t completely sold on her characters or the dialogue. I personally found both a little flat, but I suppose it’s difficult to really develop a character when you write a multi-POV story. If the author decided to stick to one point of view, like the detective Gaspery, I believe it would have alleviated some of my inability to suspend disbelief. The reader would’ve had more time to settle into the character and St. John Mandel would have more opportunities to flesh out Gaspery’s character and bring logic to the events that guide his story.
Despite perhaps not being the author’s primary audience, I enjoyed Sea of Tranquility. If you are a fan of books like Cloud Atlas or love Emily St. John Mandel’s style, odds are you’ll enjoy this book. It’s a great Sunday morning read, paced well, and has an interesting premise. In the end, Sea of Tranquility will remind you that no matter what happens in the future, there is always hope for humanity — and who doesn’t want that?
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