Sea Of Tranquility
By Emily St John Mandel
Fiction/Knopf/Paperback/272 pages/$42.44/Buy here/Borrow here
4 out of 5
"We knew it was coming, but we behaved inconsistently," goes a line in Sea Of Tranquility.
"We were still thinking in terms of getting work done. The most shocking thing in retrospect was the degree to which all of us completely missed the point."
Not another pandemic novel, you might wail. But this is one by Emily St John Mandel, acclaimed for her 2014 post-apocalyptic pandemic novel Station Eleven long before Covid-19 struck, now revisiting that strange moment in 2020, when her fiction took on the terrible sheen of reality.
Like other recent pandemic novels such as Hanya Yanagihara's To Paradise and Anthony Doerr's Cloud Cuckoo Land, it is a time-travelling narrative that trades in uncanny coincidence. But it eschews their maximalism in favour of a slender subtlety.
It connects characters from Edwin St John St Andrew, an 18-year-old aristocrat exiled from England for political incorrectness to the Canadian wilderness in 1912; to Gaspery Roberts, a hotel detective in the Night City, a moon colony in 2401 where the failure of its dome's artificial lighting means its inhabitants live perpetually beneath the void of space.
Mandel fans will delight in the intertextuality of this novel, her most metafictional to date.
Most notably, it brings back characters from her 2020 novel The Glass Hotel, including one-time trophy wives Mirella and Vincent, once friends, now estranged.
In a wryly auto-fictional strand, 23rd-century author Olive Llewellyn goes on a book tour for Marienbad, the pandemic bestseller that made her famous - as Station Eleven did for Mandel.
One reader complains to Olive about the lack of connection in Marienbad: "I was so confused by your book."
Certainly, she would have no problems with Sea Of Tranquility, which interrogates the very notion of impossible connection and ties up all its diverse strands beautifully.
Reading about a pandemic when the real world is still recovering from one would have been heavy going, were it not for the unerring grace of Mandel's prose.
In these pages are the strange lessons of pandemic living. So much death - and yet, see how tranquil life can be.
If you like this, read: How High We Go In The Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu (Bloomsbury, 2022, $29.96, buy here, borrow here), a series of interconnected stories set in a world devastated by a plague released in the Arctic due to global warming.