IHe’s a bold author who avoids potential criticism of his work with a conscious allusion to himself, but in Emily St John Mandel’s ambitious new novel, writer Olive Llewellyn’s character is up against an uneasy reader. impressed in a queue to sign a book. His interlocutor is impatient “there were all these strands, narratively speaking, all these characters, and I felt like I was waiting for them to connect, but in the end they didn’t”.
Some may agree with this as a description of sea of tranquility, but it also elegantly anticipates the censorship of this stimulating reading. Over its free length, St John Mandel’s book juggles a variety of storylines, loosely tied together by the central character of time-traveling detective Gaspery-Jacques Roberts. He’s been sent back from the distant future to interact with seemingly disparate characters, from 23rd century novelist Olive to disgraced ‘transfer man’ Edwin St Andrew, making his uncertain path in 1912 Canada. The recurring motif that unites them all is the sound of a violin heard in an unnatural setting; its meaning becomes increasingly clear as the narrative progresses.
Anyone who has read cloud atlas – or the best-selling novel by St John Mandel station eleven – will know the symmetrical and hopping structure in time that it adopts, but it remains a fiercely original creation. Some aspects of the novel are particularly enjoyable; the Olive strand, in which her book tour is jeopardized by a deadly pandemic, combines satire with lighthearted contemporary resonance, and Canada’s opening material is so offbeat you wish it could go on for longer. But the combination of speculative sci-fi drama with contemporary concerns is ever present. Colonialism, misogyny and environmental catastrophe are all addressed, but without overly didactic emphasis.
At one point, a character thinks: “Isn’t that why we’re here? To leave a mark on the desert? St John Mandel’s tender and idiosyncratic novel will undeniably mark its own imprint on the imagination of its readers.