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Review: 'Sea of Tranquility' delves into existential questions, entertainingly

Sea of Tranquility

SEA OF TRANQUILITY. By Emily St. John Mandel. Alfred A. Knopf. 272 pages. $25.

Is it possible to be entertained by existential questions? As I put down Emily St. John Mandel’s new novel, I was struck by the answer: a resounding yes.

“Sea of Tranquility” is many things at once. The book is a post-apocalyptic vision, a philosophical query, and a page-turning mystery. The story is beautifully written in prose worth reading aloud for its lyrical descriptions of this, and other, worlds. The characters are sympathetically drawn and relatable. The narratives, which move from the past to the future and back again, are skillfully woven together. Yet what remains long after the story is finished are its questions.

Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it is possible to be entertained by existential questions. After all, this is what Shakespeare did. He wrote in ways that engaged the crowd and then left them to consider questions of fate and agency, what it meant to be human, and what they made of their own experience in light of what they’d just seen.

Mandel draws heavily on Shakespeare in her work. In her debut novel, 2014’s “Station Eleven,” the play “King Lear” figured prominently, along with a traveling group of actors trying to preserve Western culture by performing plays in a dystopian future. Here again in “Sea of Tranquility,” Lear makes an appearance.

“Is this the promised end?” the book asks, quoting Kent, Lear’s closest friend, who is overcome by desolation in a final scene. It’s a question that Mandel takes up throughout the book as she tells the stories of several characters whose worlds suddenly seem to come unraveled. 

The book begins in 1912 with a character named Edwin, an Englishman immigrating to Canada. He feels exiled from his family and has set out to start anew. The story then moves to Mirella, a woman in New York on the eve of the pandemic in 2020. She is trying to get to the bottom of an unsettling question.

We then jump to Olive, an author on a book tour in the year 2203. She has written a post-apocalyptic bestseller which will soon prove to be strangely prescient. Olive is a stand-in for Mandel herself, whose “Station Eleven” garnered more than a few second glances for its descriptions of a worldwide pandemic flu.

Other characters are introduced, but to say much more might spoil the mystery that Mandel lays out. Before the story ends, her readers will understand how all of the characters, or at least their questions, are interconnected. Paradoxically, the idea that holds the stories together is that things fall apart.

Mandel writes, “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.” She explains that our lives are altered by the events of ordinary days. A spouse dies, a war begins, a virus spreads, and the world is changed. We may be given to wonder, as Kent did, if this is the promised end. Yet Mandel wonders if the promised end isn’t always coming.

Her intention mirrors Shakespeare’s as she entertains us for a time before leaving us with questions that we can’t quite shake. Why do we spend so much time imagining the end? What do we really know of fate and agency? Where do we fit in the vast, interconnected world of stories over time? How do we live meaningfully and well within the context of our limitations?

The questions are weighty, but the novel itself is not. The story moves quickly, almost effortlessly, leaving readers to wonder, as I did, how we were so entertained. The truth is that I would no sooner have put the book down than walk out of “King Lear” in the middle of a scene, and for the same reason: I wanted to know what happened to the characters. I wanted to know what happens to all of us.

With “Sea of Tranquility,” Mandel has established herself as one of our finest writers. If there is an obvious flaw in the book, it may be that it leaves readers wanting more. In the meantime, we can always reread our Shakespeare.

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Reviewer Jeremy Rutledge is the senior minister at Circular Congregational Church in Charleston.