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Sea of Tranquility review: Time travel is anything but tired in this wonderfully inventive novel

Station Eleven author Emily St John Mandel ensures the reader is always engaged and never confused in her latest book.

Sea of Tranquility is out now (Picador)

Time travel is such a well-worn trope in speculative and science fiction because it’s a versatile device for adding narrative resonance – drawing explicit links between the past, present and future, examining paths not taken, mistakes made. The wonderfully inventive Sea of Tranquility by Canadian author Emily St John Mandel. The writer is best known for her breakthrough pandemic novel Station Eleven, recently adapted for television by HBO.  

While that eerily prescient novel was written long before our current circumstances, this book was written during the pandemic, and there are ghosts of our recent past threaded through it. The narrative switches elegantly between four timelines and very different locations. In 1912 in British Columbia, a young man experiences something he can’t explain in the woods. A century later, a musician uses footage of something similarly inexplicable at a concert. Fast forward another two centuries to 2203 and Olive Llewellyn is a famous writer touring Earth on an endless book tour, a long way from her home on one of the moon’s first colonies. And another 200 years in the future, Gaspery-Jacques Roberts is hired to investigate an anomaly in time. 

Mandel juggles all of this with a very light touch, and the reader is always engaged, never confused. The evocation of time and place is precise and seemingly effortless (although I know how much effort goes into trying to make prose seem like that). There is obviously an element of autobiography to Olive’s storyline, and Mandel is brilliant at evoking the wearying dislocation of touring, and the creeping panic as a pandemic starts to take hold. But the narrative heart of the story is Gaspery’s search to discover the truth. Is our experience real or a simulation? Can we ever really escape who we are and what we’ve done? 

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As the book reaches its climax, the author weaves her stories together in a way that is genuinely impressive, subtle and nuanced, but glaringly obvious in retrospect, like all the best twists. Above all, this is a story with love and longing for connection at its heart, moving and thought-provoking in equal measure. 

Doug Johnstone is a journalist and author

You can buy Sea of Tranquility from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

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