Sea of Tranquility by Emily St John Mandel review – a time-travelling triumph

The Station Eleven author’s brilliant novel flits between disparate lives past and future, and the detective patching them together

It is a bold author who heads off potential criticisms of their work with a self-aware allusion, but in Emily St John Mandel’s ambitious new novel, the character of the writer Olive Llewellyn is confronted by an unimpressed reader in a book-signing queue. Her interlocutor impatiently claims “there were all these strands, narratively speaking, all these characters, and I felt like I was waiting for them to connect, but they didn’t ultimately”.

Some may agree with this as a description of Sea of Tranquility, but it also elegantly anticipates censure of this thought-provoking read. Over its spare length, St John Mandel’s book juggles a variety of storylines, loosely connected by the pivotal character of the time-travelling detective Gaspery-Jacques Roberts. He has been sent back from the far-distant future to interact with apparently disparate figures, from the 23rd-century novelist Olive to the disgraced “remittance man” Edwin St Andrew, making his uncertain way in 1912 Canada. The recurring motif that unites them all is the sound of a violin heard in an unnatural setting; its significance becomes increasingly clear as the narrative progresses.

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