The sixth novel from Emily St. John Mandel, author of the award-winning, bestselling Station Eleven, is a time-travel puzzle that connects a disparate band of characters.
Sea of Tranquility opens in 1912, as Edwin St. John St. Andrew, the aimless youngest son of an English earl, makes his way across Canada. Edwin lands in Caiette, a remote settlement in British Columbia, where he experiences something that cannot be easily explained, and encounters a strange man named Roberts who claims to be a priest.
The narrative then leaps to 2020 in New York City, where Mirella Kessler is trying to discern her friend Vincent’s whereabouts. (Readers of Mandel’s fifth novel, The Glass Hotel, will recognize Mirella and Vincent.) Mirella finds herself talking to a stranger, Gaspery Roberts, who seems familiar. Gaspery wants to know about a glitchy moment that Vincent captured on video years ago.
The narrative skips ahead again, to the year 2203, when writer Olive Llewellyn is on a book tour, talking to audiences on Earth about her bestselling pandemic novel. Olive lives with her husband and daughter in Colony Two on the moon. Olive, like Mirella, finds herself talking to a man who calls himself Gaspery Roberts. Gaspery, a magazine reporter, asks about a brief scene in her novel, an odd moment in the Oklahoma City Airship Terminal.
And then once more, the narrative jumps forward in time, and now Gaspery Roberts begins to tell his own story.
How these four (and a few other) characters are linked, and how one strange moment reverberates through time, are the subjects of this novel. There’s a mournfulness to Sea of Tranquility. Its main characters feel themselves to be exiles, trying to sort out where and how they belong. But the novel is playful, too, taking a metafictional turn: Olive, like her creator, Mandel, has written a bestselling novel about a pandemic, and she’s stuck on an endless book tour, far from her family, as an actual pandemic approaches. And Gaspery is a dryly funny, self-deprecating guide to his era and his unlikely travels through time.
Although readers may question the particulars of the novel’s depiction of the future (wouldn’t the concept of a book tour be impossibly quaint, or even unknown, by 2203?), Mandel’s character development will sweep them along. Turn-of-the-century character Edwin’s sections are particularly well rendered.
Mandel’s prose is beautiful but unfussy; some chapters are compressed into a few poetic lines. The story moves quickly, the suspense building not only from the questions about that one strange moment but also from the actions of those investigating it. In the end, the novel’s interlocking plot resolves beautifully, making for a humane and moving time-travel story, as well as a meditation on loneliness and love.