by Deborah Rogers –
We held our July meeting outdoors and a larger group meant lots of insights into our selection, Emily St John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility. It’s a book that defies easy categorization, but our starting point of agreement was that Mandel’s writing is beautiful. Sea of Tranquility spans hundreds of years and vast distances yet it is somehow very lightly told, leaving the reader with a sense of having touched on just a tiny part of a huge story. There are big ideas about time, humanity, the nature of reality even, contained within this short novel that opens on Vancouver Island in 1912 and take us all the way to outer space 500 years later. The structure of the book was not to everyone’s liking. The jumps in time between sections felt confusing to some, and made the book feel more like a collection of short stories than a novel to others. The reader who is willing to suspend disbelief and stick with the journey is rewarded with an ending that ties the different time periods together.
The science of this sci-fi novel was one area that our readers felt unconvinced by. The author’s imagination is obvious, and she hints at a range of interesting developments in the future as humankind deals with the results of pandemics and climate crisis. However, her leaps into time travel and the moral dilemmas it could cause feel under-explained. As well as the theme of time – the nature of time passing and questions over what constitutes a good use of time – there are other threads running through that our readers discussed, like colonialism, economics and poverty, and world-changing pandemics.
Those members who had read Mandel’s other books spotted several characters they had encountered before. We wondered whether Mandel has trouble letting go of characters, and noticed how character names, and the whole character of the novelist Olive, were autobiographical. Olive, an author of dystopian fiction, is on a book tour when a pandemic strikes. Her section of the book felt intimate, with her thoughts and experiences presented through a series of vignettes that created an almost dreamlike atmosphere. The beautiful writing and hints at big, important ideas to explore, made this an enjoyable read for most (though no one said that they would recommend it to others), and many of the group felt they wanted to seek out Mandel’s other work.
Our next meeting takes place on Tuesday, August 16 at 6:30 p.m. at the Sidney/North Saanich Library. We’ll be discussing Beyond the Trees: A Journey Alone Across Canada’s Arctic by Adam Shoalts. Sign up to our mailing list for meeting details: www.seasidemagazine.ca/book-club/