Across centuries, a random and unlikely set of strangers are all connected by a singular anomaly. For mere moments, they experience some sort of disruption to reality. They are suddenly and inexplicably somewhere else before quickly returning to their original position. The experience is so brief they have struggle fully remembering it, and mainly write it off as a worrying delusion. They are: an early 20th century British gentleman, disowned by his family for dissenting politics and exiled to Canada, a young girl obsessed with videography in the late 20th century (who coincidentally is also the main character of Mandel’s novel The Glass House), and a 23rd century author obsessed with the history of pandemics.
Even further into the future, the anomalies have been noticed by a government agency solely responsible for time travel. They are concerned that these incidents are proof that our universe is just a simulation, and so they send an agent to investigate. Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, named for a character in the author’s most famous novel, turns up at each point in time hoping to find out what is going on.
Intriguing as that set up may be, it might mislead you as to the nature of the novel. This isn’t a time travel thriller or a mystery. At least not really. It’s an ethereal composition about the nature of life. By stretching the plot over the course of centuries Mandel subtly emphasizes the brevity of our own individual lives and the inherent similarities between human beings, no matter what times they live in. The internal problems of an outcast son in pre-WWI Canada are not terribly different from those of a woman raised on a colony on the moon. Mandel also shows the reader the beautiful possibilities of the things we do in life outliving us, whether it’s our words being read, our names being remembered, or simply the work we do contributing to a better future. It’s a lovely idea, anyway.