Sea of Tranquility, Emily St. John Mandel. New York: Knopf, 2022.
Summary: Incidents of a strange hiccup in time over several centuries all have elements in common, including the appear of Gaspery-Jacques Roberts in various guises.
A distortion of reality, a kind of darkness, the sound of a violin, the hum of a train, and a whoosh recur in a number of places over several centuries, as does the appearance of a mysterious figure, Gaspery-Jacques Roberts.
He appears as a substitute priest to Edwin St. John St. Andrew, exiled to Canada in 1912 on remittances for careless remarks about colonialism. This after Edwin wanders in a forest near the village of Caiette, and witnesses this strange anomaly.
In 2020, Mirella visits a sound and light performance created by her friend Paul. During the performance, there is a video with the same phenomena. A person by the name of Gaspery-Jacques Roberts questions him about the anomaly afterwards. Mirella, trying to connect with a lost mutual friend, Vincent, through Paul recognizes Roberts as a man she saw in an underpass as a child.
In 2203, Olive is on a book tour on earth for her novel, Marienbad, the story of a pandemic, even as reports of a spreading pandemic trouble her and leave her counting the days until she is reunited with her children on the moon. But first, she must have an interview with a journalist interested in a passage where she recounts the same distortion of reality, the violin, the sound of the train, the woosh of a spacecraft taking off. And you guessed it–his name is Gaspery-Jacques Roberts.
It is 2401, and we learn at last about Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, who grew up in Colony 2 on the moon, the Night City, because of the failure of the dome projection system. He is named after a minor character in Olive’s book, Marienbad. After taking a hotel detective job in Colony 1 with the help of his childhood friend Talia, he enlists in The Time Institute after hearing his sister Zoey discuss the case of their investigation of the anomaly in Marienbad and at other points in time. It becomes his assignment, against the counsel of his sister, to go back in time and investigate.
But there are risks. The greatest is to change the timeline. The primary concern are changes that impinge on the Time Institute itself. And the classic dilemma of time travel stories arises–do you let bad things happen to people when you know what will happen to them? Do you do so even when you may be exiled in time, not allowed to return to your own?
The plot is probably not terribly original as time travel stories go. The novel recapitulates the pandemic story we’ve all lived (“We knew it was coming“). But the writing is gorgeous and spare and the relationship between Gaspery, his sister, and Talia particularly well-drawn. Each vignette is brief, sometimes broken into several chapters, moving first forward, and then back in time until we encounter the violinist in the railway station…