Longing for What We Never Had: A Review of Emily St John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility

Longing for What We Never Had: A Review of Emily St John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility

Ben Berman Ghan

Under Review:
Sea of Tranquility. Emily St. John Mandel. Knopf, April 5, 2022.

Within Emily St John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility, time is a mountain you climb, callouses forming along tired and bloody fingers, giddy from the knowledge a long fall might await you, dread building. However, when at last you reach the peak, you find your toughened hands the perfect tools for descent. Climbing back down again can be done with confidence, enmeshed in the surety that soft ground awaits, and everything that was once unknown can now be seen with comfortable perspective and clarity.

This is Mandel’s sixth novel, building on the themes and premises of Station Eleven (2014) and The Glass Hotel (2020). Its connection to those previous works is sometimes deeply meaningful, and sometimes only amounts to an Easter egg effect of “hey, that name was in the last book!” This is not to say that Sea of Tranquility doesn’t stand on its own; it does. But knowing some of its context — including a writer whose big break was a book about viral pandemics, now on tour for a new book while an actual pandemic looms, and then rages into being — sharpens this into a deeper and perhaps more personal novel. Tying together several of Mandel’s previous styles, both the literary and the speculative, The Sea of Tranquility is a novel that ranges from historical fiction, to contemporary, to far future Sci-Fi, all while continuing to feel close to the world of today.

The structure of the book brings to mind David Mitchell’s 2004 novel Cloud Atlas, following several different narratives and protagonists through the centuries. While the “connective tissue” in Mandel’s novel is far more literal than Mitchell’s spiritual approach, this doesn’t become apparent until very late in the narrative. Once the curtain is pulled back, revealing the reason for the time-hopping narrative, I suddenly felt as if the book I’d been reading had been taken out of my hands to be replaced with another. Only then could I reflect on past sections and finally put the pieces together with ease.

Everywhere, we find longing for something we might have never had. In each life, someone chases that strangely uncanny, baseless nostalgia, and we watch them bruise and scar. Everybody is lonely. Nobody is quite at home.

We begin with Edwin St. Andrew in 1912—the third son of a wealthy British family, now exiled to Canada—as he travels to the Island of Caiette, where he is disturbed by the sounds of violins in the forest. From 1912 we jump to Mirella, living in 2020’s New York. Next, on a 2203 book tour of Earth, we meet an author named Olive, who grew up in the domed lunar cities besides the eponymous Sea of Tranquility. Finally we reach 2401, where those lunar colonies have fallen into disrepair, and a disaffected man named Gaspery-Jacques Roberts tries to find new purpose in life. Everywhere, there are allusions to strange occurrences throughout time. Everywhere, characters are hearing the same violins.

There’s a sense of longing to be found in each age: Edwin for a place in the world, Mirella for closure, Olive for an age without plague, or at least an age that shows her more respect, and even Gaspery-Jacques, for meaning, and for a time before his own. In each, Mandel places that hook of disquiet. Everywhere, we find longing for something we might have never had. In each life, someone chases that strangely uncanny, baseless nostalgia, and we watch them bruise and scar. Everybody is lonely. Nobody is quite at home.

This isn’t to say that each section of the novel is successful in equal measure. Your mileage may vary depending on your disposition towards science fiction or historical fiction, and your patience with the author; if you are looking for a novel deeply focused on its central mystery, you might need to look elsewhere. Did I consider Edwin’s journey a little meandering, or Olive’s life at the dawn of a pandemic as the work of an author too prone to navel-gazing? If I’m honest, I have to say yes, even while protesting that I was able to get lost in both lives — a testament to the author’s skill. While I enjoyed the metatext of Olive’s journey as much as I was enthralled by Robert’s moon-drenched melancholy and his quest to solve the anomaly of time, there are still flaws I can’t ignore. While Sea of Tranquility does stand on its own, there are cracks that show in Mirella’s time, which leans harder on the reader’s fondness for and familiarity with The Glass Hotel than perhaps it should. 

Where the novel truly shines is in those moments where modernity becomes antiquity, where future becomes nostalgia. We barrel ahead into the future excited by each turn and development in life until we reach what feels like the end, only to find ourselves gently climbing back down through the centuries. Everything that had once been now is now then. Everything that had once been the world, when it’s returned to, feels only like the memory of music. The final chapters of the book carry the feeling of an elongated epilogue, a melancholy repose of the life of Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, who seems to flare and fade as all secrets are revealed. Post-revelation, his life seems to be an afterlife, mourning for those lives he knows that now are gone.

Robert carves “No stars burn forever” into a wall near the end of the book. Its message will be lost on any character who can read it in that time, and yet it will fade from existence long before it reaches those that recognize its meaning. Even I, the reader who does understand, can only draw meaning from this little action here from my vantage, atop this mountain of narrative I’ve climbed, where I can look down at all the parts of the journey in concert. Sea of Tranquility ends as it began, with me climbing through history—only this time I’m going back down the mountain, finding remembered footholds and little outcroppings, to find that though I thought I’d moved beyond them, each point in time has remained just as alive and vibrant as when I left it.

Ben Berman Ghan is a writer, and editor based in Tkaronoto/Toronto, He holds an HBA from The University of Toronto, and a Master’s degree in English Lit from Ryerson University. His fiction, poetry, and essays have been published in the likes of Abyss & Apex, Strange Horizons, and The Temz Review. He is the author of the short story collection What We See in the Smoke (Crowsnest Books 2019), the novella Visitation Seeds (845 Press 2020), and is an incoming PhD student at the University of Calgary. You can find him @inkstainedwreck or inkstainedwreck.ca.

Transparency Statement

This review was commissioned from an email pitch from ARB’s monthly calls for review. It was edited by Jake Casella Brookins and copyedited by Alex Skopic. The author and editors were not acquainted prior to the review. A review copy was arranged by ARB from Knopf Publishing Group.

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