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Emily St. John Mandel tackles the big questions in 'Sea of Tranquility'

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The 2014 blockbuster novel "Station Eleven" by Emily St. John Mandel was adapted into a TV series on HBO Max. And its successor by Mandel, "The Glass Hotel," and her latest, "Sea Of Tranquility," are also set to be adapted for TV. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan says success hasn't dulled Mandel's powers. Here's Maureen's review of "Sea Of Tranquility."

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Read is one of the best verbs in the English language, but it doesn't feel like the right verb to use in connection with Emily St. John Mandel's novels. I didn't just read "Station Eleven," "The Glass Hotel" or Mandel's latest, "Sea of Tranquility." I lived in those novels and felt the remnants of their weird, chill atmosphere long after I had to move on. Of course, I'm not alone. World builder is a phrase that's rightly used to describe Mandel's immersive powers as a novelist.

In "Sea Of Tranquility," Mandel summons up not one, but three fully realized worlds in three distinct time periods. The novel opens in 1912 when the son of an aristocratic British family is banished to Canada for some rash dinner-table remarks about colonial policy. Despite his double-sainted name, 18-year-old Edwin St. John St. Andrew feels unprotected in the wilds of British Columbia, whose forests terrify him because of their indifference, their utter neutrality on the question of whether he lives or dies. One day, however, Edwin's nervous boredom gets the better of him, and he walks into the forest where underneath a giant maple tree, darkness falls like an eclipse. And he has an impression of being in some vast interior, something like a train station or a cathedral. And there are notes of violin music. There are other people around him and then an incomprehensible sound. When Edwin comes back to his senses, he's on his knees vomiting on a nearby beach. He thinks he might be going mad.

In its central section called "Last Book Tour On Earth," the novel vaults into the 23rd century and into an unusual stylistic mode for Mandel - autofiction. In what reads like an unholy menage a trois with Sally Rooney and Claire Vaye Watkins, Mandel describes the marathon book tour endured by her fictional alter ego, an author named Olive Llewellyn, whose home is a colony on the moon, and whose novel about a worldwide pandemic has become a surprise blockbuster, much like "Station Eleven." In city after dizzying city, Olive fields sometimes inane questions from readers. She also encounters a reader who's tattooed the novel's most famous line on her arm, much as some real-life fans have emulated a character in "Station Eleven" and gotten tattoos that declare survival is insufficient. Looking at her fan's tattoo, Olive is startled by the way fiction can bleed into the world and leave a mark on someone's skin.

Two other disquieting things to note about Olive's story - she's touring as news breaks that a deadly new virus has erupted on Earth, and the novel she's promoting contains a strange scene where darkness falls in a cavernous space and a violin plays. What does the repetition, centuries apart, of that uncanny episode mean? It's up to a character in the novel's final section to find out. Gaspery-Jacques Roberts is a loner detective living on the moon in the 25th century in a colony called the Night City. Working for a sinister organization called the Time Institute, Gaspery volunteers to travel back into the past to figure out why discrete incidents from different centuries are bleeding past their boundaries, not unlike that fan's tattoo.

"Sea Of Tranquility" is a poignant, ingeniously constructed and deeply absorbing novel that surveys big questions about the cruel inevitability of time passing, loss, the nature of what we consider reality and, in the end, what finally matters. Like "Station Eleven," "Sea Of Tranquility" is a catastrophe story. The world is largely wiped out by that virus that emerges in the novel's central section. But as Olive reflects in one of the novel's most profound passages, such catastrophic erasures also happen every day. It's shocking, she thinks, 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 in peace time, and by noon, your country is at war. You wake in ignorance, and by evening, it's clear that a pandemic is already here.

Mandel is an important novelist of our moment, but doesn't settle for merely replicating our moment. She inhabits it even as she sees beyond it. And given that she's just in mid-career, it's exciting to think about where she'll take us next.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan is a professor of literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Sea Of Tranquility" by Emily St. John Mandel. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interviews with conductor Marin Alsop, actor Adam Scott and poet and novelist Ocean Vuong, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUN RA'S "SUNRISE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.