A Review of Emily St. John Mandel’s “Sea of Tranquility”
Emily St. John Mandel is probably the best writer Canada has to offer at the current moment. Since her breakout hit, Station Eleven, first graced bookstore shelves in 2014 (but was not her first novel), she has proven to be able to write consistent follow-up novels, The Glass Hotel being one of them, and her latest tome, Sea of Tranquility, being the other. Both novels are gloriously good — though Sea of Tranquility seems a bit short and more novella-ish than anything. Both tales are connected to each other as they both feature some of the same characters: Vincent and her half brother Paul. However, and I hope I’m not saying too much, the events of Sea of Tranquility take place in a slightly altered timeline: Vincent’s Ponzi-scheming husband no longer goes to jail, but Vincent herself dies in the same tragic way that she did in The Glass Hotel. To that end, can you say that Sea of Tranquility is a sequel to The Glass Hotel, or is it just merely a companion novel(la)? Hard to tell, but readers of Sea of Tranquility will find it fun to spot all the Easter eggs that link it to the previous novel. That said, you don’t have to have read The Glass Hotel to enjoy Sea of Tranquility, though it might help to be familiar with Mandel’s work first.
Sea of Tranquility is about a lot of things. It is a novel(la) about the laziness of colonizers, whether they be British immigrants to Canada before World War I or colonizers of Earth’s moon in the far-off future. It is also a — let’s just call it a novel, shall wee? — about being a writer and the lonely life of promoting your work while on a book tour. It is additionally, like Station Eleven before it, a volume about pandemics and how does one survive when you’re in perpetual lockdown. If that weren’t enough, Sea of Tranquility begs to ask the question: are we living in a simulation a la The Matrix? To that end, Sea of Tranquility is a novel for literary readers who are interested in science fiction but don’t have the patience for that genre, and probably not for readers of science fiction who will find this slice of literary fiction to not be deep enough or travel far enough down paths that aren’t particularly well-worn. However, for those willing to come along for the ride, Sea of Tranquility is a fun book. It is gloriously entertaining for those who like their SF to be on the light side.
The novel flip-flops through different eras and strands of time: from the familiar-to-readers of The Glass Hotel fictional Vancouver Island hamlet of Caiette, here set in 1912 and the early ’90s, to the pre-COVID pandemic New York of 2020 to the imagined moon colonies of the 2300s after the Earth becomes more and more inhabitable due to climate change and geopolitical posturing. At the book’s heart is a male time traveller who ping-pongs between these settings to find out what’s behind an anomaly in the space-time continuum, while debating whether he should save the lives of some of the subjects he’s interviewing. Readers will delight in seeing how Mandel weaves together what seems to be, at first, divergent strands of plot that are seemingly unrelated to each other. It’s a similar trick to what she did in The Glass Hotel, which only serves to bolster the connections between the books. And, in so much as the fact that The Glass Hotel turned out to be a prescient look at life pre-COVID (and Station Eleven imagined what life would be like in a post-apocalyptic landscape after a pandemic), Sea of Tranquility deals with what it is like to live through an actual pandemic and how disconcerting that feeling truly is. In short, this book will certainly resonate with readers reading this in the year 2022.
In the end, while Sea of Tranquility is an enjoyable book, it does feel a little hurried and not quite as fleshed out as The Glass Hotel. Readers may note the two-year gestation period between the publication of these books, and the six-year wait between Station Eleven and The Glass Hotel. In many ways, Sea of Tranquility feels light, airy, and frothy, and is more playful than The Glass Hotel. However, there are those Easter eggs to contend with. The real fun is in noticing links that occur between this and the other novel, which is why you might want to go back to The Glass Hotel first if you haven’t read it. Still, Sea of Tranquility is a book that stands on its own merits. One must wonder if Mandel might be composing a trilogy here, and it’ll be interesting to see just where the author goes after this novel. If you’re looking for a good, “park your brain at the door” work with a bit of a literary twist, Sea of Tranquility will put that mind at ease. At the end of the day, this is a fine read and a worthy addition to Mandel’s growing oeuvre and should be actively sought out by those who love a good book. I’ve already mentioned this, but Mandel just might be Canada’s best contemporary writer, and it’s exciting to watch a true talent shine so brightly in the firmament of the Canadian literary scene. Go already and check this book out. You won’t regret it. I certainly didn’t.
Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility will be published by Knopf / HarperCollins Canada on April 5, 2022.
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You may also be interested in the following review: Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel.
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