Genre: Literary Fiction, Sci-fi.
Published: Picador Press/Pan MacMillan, April 2022
My Rating: 5/5 stars
“It’s shocking to wake up in one world and find yourself in another by nightfall, but the situation isn’t actually all that unusual. You wake up married, then your spouse dies over the course of the day. You wake up in peacetime and by noon your country is at war; you wake up in ignorance and by the evening it’s clear that a pandemic is already here.”
I have mentioned before this “problem” I have as a reviewer, where I struggle to review the books I love the most. The books I can’t keep out of my mind, that make my heart overflow; they are also the books where words fail me in discussing them. I can already tell that Sea of Tranquillity is going to fall victim to that as well, so strap in for a longform loveletter.
TLDR: do yourself a favour and pre-order this book today!
What is Sea of Tranquillity?
To paraphrase the publisher: it’s a character-driven story of time travel, that precisely captures the reality of our current moment. To use my own words: it’s a return to everything I loved in the authors previous two novels, both of which I consider all-time-favourites. All three are stories that follow a cast of characters, surviving (and living, because “survival is insufficient”) their own brand of “apocalypses”. All three share themes, a feeling of melancholy and hope, and now characters, as Sea of Tranquillity brings back familiar names from her previous works.
Reaching across time from 1912th Canada to a Moon Colony in 2401, this novel has the scope of a sci-fi epic, but the intimacy of a midnight kiss.
Characters for the ages
As mentioned: Sea of Tranquillity introduces a new set of wonderful characters to us, but also brings back some familiar names from Station Eleven and The Glass Hotel. It’s a bold choice that works out great in this story. You don’t have to read the previous two works in order to enjoy Sea of Tranquillity, but I personally do recommend it. I had recently reread both The Glass Hotel and Station Eleven and having these stories so clear in my mind added a deeper layer to my current reading experience that I wouldn’t have wanted to miss.
Yet even if you come into this story brand new, you will still benefit from Mandel’s familiarity with these characters and this world. The fact that she knows them through and through makes it possible to craft some of the most memorable and fleshed-out characters I’ve read about in a long time, within less than 300 pages.
Part of that familiarity may also come from a place of personal experience. Through the character of Olive Llewellyn - an author who published a pandemic novel, right at the dawn of a real-life pandemic – Mandel reflects on her own pandemic-experiences. Whilst I usually don’t enjoy these clear “autobiographical nods” from the author, in this case it was subtle, relatable and seamlessly integrated.
In a recent interview Mandel mentions David Mitchells Cloud Atlas as an important piece of inspiration for Sea of Tranquillity. Although I love Mitchells work, I feel like Mandel did more than just take influences from this style; she managed to improve and master it completely. The story and characters loop back on themselves, and even their predecessors with an effortless grace that I think only Mandel could’ve pulled off. Where Cloud Atlas was a pioneer of the style, with all of the clunks and kinks that go along, Sea of Tranquillity is a well-oiled machine. Every phrase, every motif and every timeline interlocks and spins together like the gears in a clock; meticulously crafted but seeming effortless. It’s the display of wonderful craftmanship, without sacrificing readability that makes Mandel a favourite for me. As much as I loved her work before: she keeps getting stronger and stronger with every subsequent release.
Worthy of its title
On a more personal note: this “universe” (Station Eleven, The Glass Hotel, and now Sea of Tranquillity) has a very special place in my heart. Each book has a distinct feeling to it, and each of them slotted somehow perfectly into the rhythm of my life at that moment. It may not be the books virtue perse, but it’s a powerful reading experience regardless. When it comes to “the feeling”, Sea of Tranquillity honours its title: it feels like the serene calm to follow a storm. It feels like… well: I’ll let Mandel do the talking one final time:
“I’ve been thinking a great deal about time and motion lately, about being a still point in the ceaseless rush.”
Many thanks to Picador Press for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review: it was an honour to read this early.
Find this book on Goodreads.