By Emily St. John Mandel



272pp/$25.00/April 2022

Sea of Tranquility
Cover by Abby Weintraub

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Emily St. John Mandel offers a nested time travel story with Sea of Tranquility, which begins in 1912 when Edwin St. John St. Andrew, the younger son of a wealthy British family, finds himself sent to distant Canada to keep from becoming an embarrassment to the family. The action then jumps to 2020, when Mirella Kessler is coming to terms with the fact that her former friend, Vincent, may not actually have been involved with the betrayal that led to Mirella's husband's death. Mandel's third stop is in 2203, when author Olive Llewelyn is visiting earth from a lunar colony on a book tour. Finally, 2401 introduces the Time Institute, which will serve to tie the disparate threads introduced in the first half of the book together and reveal what their driving forces were.

The initial chapters of Sea of Tranquility almost read as vignettes, rather than parts of a larger whole. There are some indications that the are linked, such as the repeated references to the small village of Caiette on Vancouver Island, but it isn't clear what links them narratively. In a more traditional novel, this may be seen as a weakness, but in a nested novel, one of the pleasures is having the pieces laid out with the explanation only offered later, once the author offers up the hinge point, an Mandel handles this aspect of the novel masterfully. Once Mandel begins to provide the explanation for the disparate chapters and how they fit together, it becomes obvious, in retrospect, how everything impacted what had come before.

Because of the time-traveling aspect of Sea of Tranquility, for the characters initially interact with the other major characters. Edwin, Mirella, and Olive all are shown surrounded by their contemporaries, which allows Mandel to build them up in a normal setting. Although occasionally they find themselves facing someone who seems a little off, that is just one of the normal aspects of dealing with strangers in everyday life. Of course, later, those characters may become more important to the overall story, and even once Mandel reveals their identities, she still is able to include twists that, while clear once revealed, they aren't telegraphed to the reader.

With a section set in early 2020, Mandel does not have to deal with the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, she does introduce another pandemic in the twenty-third century, and, just as people in the twenty-first century weren't able to quite get their minds around how a pandemic spreads, Mandel shows the distrust, willful lack of understanding, an inability to deal with the sudden change in society, demonstrating that even as things do change, humans have a tendency to remain the same. While COVID-19 and he SARS Twelve pandemic play a role in Sea of Tranquility, they are part of Mandel's background and don't overwhelm the narrative or the characters.

Although Sea of Tranquility has ties to Mandel's earlier novel, The Glass Hotel, which provides more detail of Vincent and her brother Paul that features in the second chapter, knowledge of that novel is not necessary to fully understand Sea of Tranquility, although Sea of Tranquility does offer further depth to the earlier book with its continuation of their story, however brief. Instead, Mandel has created a novel that stands on its own, yet feels as if it is part of a larger world. Olive Llewelyn, Mirella Kessler, and Edwin St. John St. Andrew all have lives outside the incidents which contribute to the story Mandel is telling, just not necessarily important to the current work, which gives the novel a fuller feel.

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