Oh my, she did it again! Emily St. John Mandel swept me off my feet with the most improbable novel. With Station Eleven (read 5 years ago!), she’d made me love a post-apocalyptic novel, a genre I actively avoid and always try to keep 10 feet away from me (I didn’t re-read it last year). And this time, she made me love a novel about… about what exactly? About a Ponzi scheme, about retirement savings, about a hotel, about a young woman, about her brother, about rich people and poor people, about a composer and an old woman who is not believed, about office workers… The cover shows a mysterious island lost in the mist, and this is a great representation for the entire book. I love it but I can’t describe it with precision, and every time I try to approach this mirage, it eludes me. All the synopsis you will read here and there don’t do justice to the book anyway, so I won’t even try.
I read the review by Boris Fishman of the New York Times and I was shocked that it was not a glowing one. Not a bad, scathing one à la Michiko Kakutani either, but the reviewer felt lost in too much jumping around, too much randomness and an absence of focus or powerful overarching message. (I’m paraphrasing, and if I got it wrong, it’s all my fault). It’s true that there’s a chorus of voices and a lot of moving back and forth in the chronology, just as in Station Eleven, but I didn’t feel lost. I let go of my expectations and let myself be guided by St. John Mandel wherever she wanted me to go: from New York to a small island near Vancouver, Canada, from a skyscraper with cubicles to a container ship. It is an immersive experience and a slow burner.
Just like in Station Eleven I felt such a melancholy and a sense of grief during the last part of the book. All along the story there are so many ominous sentences that we know it will end badly, but I was surprised of how much I cared for these random, deeply flawed characters, even though I couldn’t really relate to any of them (this is quite rare for me, normally when there’s nothing to relate to I can’t seem to bridge the distance to the characters).
I liked that the book was so very realistic and informative about random things like Ponzi schemes (referring to the Madoff scandal) or container ships, while mixing some supernatural elements without being clunky. In this book, things can be both true and untrue. What is solid (such as wealth) may not be so solid after all. Same as a civilization faced with a pandemic. But people reinvent themselves all the time in this book, and the tone is elegiac but not desperate.
I liked that St. John Mandel weaves a web of tiny puzzle pieces: it’s so satisfying to assemble the jigsaw at the end, but even if I missed some parts of these intricate stories, it doesn’t matter because the picture is still very beautiful. Certainly this book will be among my favorites of this year. NPR calls it “gorgeous and haunting”, and for once the blurb is not exaggerating. And now what I want to know is: what next title from Emily St. John Mandel should I read in 2022?