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‘Sea of Tranquility’ a tale of space, time and the ties that bind

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There is no feeling quite like that of being transported by literature. Reading a book that sends you through time and space, to far-flung locales both physical and metaphysical. Engaging with a narrative that is compelling in terms of the story being told and the thematic foundation upon which that story is built.

Mastering that sort of layered storytelling is something that most writers – including some tremendously gifted ones – never quite manage. But when that mastery is achieved, the resulting work can etch itself upon your mind and upon your heart.

Emily St. John Mandel has achieved that mastery.

Her new novel is “Sea of Tranquility” (Knopf, $25), a beautiful and complex tale of creativity and love spread across centuries. Marrying the power of familial bonds with the passage of time, bound together through the rippling reflections cast by the motion of generations, it is a book that ensnares the imagination and buoys the reader forward into the known unknown.

In the years preceding World War I, a young man named Edwin St. Andrew takes leave of his familial home in England. He is not the eldest, so he shall see no inheritance, and when he clashes with his mother over colonial ideologies, it is deemed best that he make his way across the sea. He lands in Canada and eventually makes his way to an isolated village in the wilderness, only to see and hear something so inexplicable that it shakes him to his core.

Centuries later, a writer named Olive Llewellyn has left her home in the second moon colony to undertake a book tour on Earth. Unbeknownst to her – and indeed, to the rest of the world – a pandemic looms, one that will have truly dire consequences. Her novel has proven prescient in many ways, but perhaps the most significant is a passage involving a mysterious vision.

In between, a woman seeks to reconnect with an old friend. That friend’s husband’s financial fraudulence – a Ponzi scheme – led to the woman’s husband taking his own life. The woman is nowhere to be found, but her brother - an experimental musician – accompanies one of his performances with a video that includes an uncanny moment of disruption.

Can it be that these moments are one and the same?

Connecting all of these threads is a man whose presence in all places and times should be impossible, yet due to the circumstances of his own existence – in yet another time and place – he is able to know that the connection is possible, though not what or why it might have come to be.

(I’ll confess that I’ve made a deliberate effort to be relatively vague here – while I believe a sense of the story is important in a review, I also think that Mandel offers up many wonderful and rewarding surprises scattered throughout. I’d hate to be responsible for someone losing that possibility of discovery.)

“Sea of Tranquility” is a delicate web of interconnectedness, a story whose many threads are woven together so subtly and smoothly that the reader almost doesn’t realize it is happening until the knots are complete. Each piece of the story, separated by time and space, is compelling in its own right, but it is only when we see the points of contact that we truly understand the intricacy of what Mandel has made for us.

Telling stories across multiple timelines has become something of a trope in recent years. In the hands of lesser writers, it can be something of a crutch, a way to prop up stories that might not stand strongly on their own. But when a master like Mandel goes to work, we get something that is far more than the sum of its parts, where the pieces are welded together with a gentle fire and reinforced into something stronger.

One of the joys of reading Mandel is her ability to evoke a sense of place. She is equally at home crafting representations of the past and predictions of the future, with a willingness to combine the two to create an upward narrative spiral. Few authors can sweep a reader up as readily as she does.

She’s no slouch when it comes to the creation of memorable characters either, imbuing everyone within these pages with a palpable humanity. The people who populate this book are real, flawed humans; sure, they occupy a world with fantastical elements, but their fundamental humanity is omnipresent. That humanity is key. We live and breathe with them. Their triumphs are ours, as are their tragedies.

“Sea of Tranquility” is a work of complex simplicity, if that makes sense. It is constructed in a detailed and deliberate way, worlds built atop worlds, yet the central themes are straightforward. Few things make me as a reader as happy as when speculative elements are effectively woven into literary fiction, so as you might imagine, I am EXTREMELY happy to get to read Mandel’s work in general and “Sea of Tranquility” in particular.

Last modified on Wednesday, 06 April 2022 08:26

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