“Heartfelt but not sentimental, dramatic without the heavy plot and quietly literary without being overstated” – The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss

ttzsmThe Tidal Zone is a book that will make you achingly grateful for your friends and family. It’s a book that is expertly quiet and extraordinary gripping, with a kind of modest poeticism to it. Told from the point of view of a stay at home dad Adam, whose fifteen year old daughter, Miriam, collapses and stops breathing for no reason one day, the father’s story and his family’s lives are pieced together through this inexplicable event.

This is a quiet novel which takes its strength from delaying the unknown, full of small mundane moments and endless scenes set from a hospital bed waiting for more NHS tests and results.  Moss is skilled at bringing the softer moments of everyday life and the moments between the moments to life; waiting in the children’s hospital ward listening to the patter of tiny feet edging to the bathroom in the middle of the night, tearful whispers behind closed curtains, coffee being poured by anxious hands. It is the author’s turn of phrase and the underlying tension of the unsolved mystery of why Miriam’s body stopped working that drives the narrative through these moments and makes them feel so gripping. It’s with these smaller details that we’re able be taken through the trauma of the scenario without the melodrama.

I love Moss’ choice to portray the story from the point of view of a stay at home dad. Adam left his academic career to bring up the kids, he loves cooking and is the one in the family to obsess over clean shirts, family schedules, the washing up.  At times the narrative happily rants about the different expectations we place on parents, and the archaic boundaries we put on stay at home dads. It challenges the idea of masculinity and the odd expectations that dads are babysitter rather than parents, that dads who bake and do the laundry are somehow not fulfilling their male role. It’s also nice to see this theme explored without it being too much of a projected moral of the story, more of a side note to the reader than the overarching theme. Moss is also superb at making the dynamics of busy family life feel real, which is perhaps my favourite part of the book.

The novel could have done without the interludes of history of the postwar new construction of Coventry cathedral, a project that the dad is writing for his fast fading academic career. Although well told, and definitely not similar to Wikipedia style entries that some novels seem to delve into, for me it adds nothing to the story. What did work was the backstory of Adam’s granddad, which spans numerous chapters as he tries to tell the bored, uninterested Miriam his life story. The story could be seen as a clichéd tale of Irish immigration to America, however Moss is brilliant at making each moment and detail unique. It helps that the granddad’s story – more so than the cathedral strand – is relevant to the central plot of the novel, whereas the cathedral strand seemed to be intended as a metaphor to run parallel to the story, which for me never quite came off.

This is a book that spends its time making you wait patiently for something that you’re uncertain is coming, putting you in exactly the same shoes as the characters. My love for this book was offset in the final paragraphs, however, where it felt like the author had a moment of doubt in her readers and overstates the meaning or ‘moral’ of the book. Words that could have been removed in the edit and not missed, but overall I see very little fault in The Tidal Zone.

Any cop? Fans of Benjamin Johncock’s The Last Pilot and James Smythe’s No Harm Can Come to a Good Man, will enjoy the quiet literary prose and the tension below the iceberg. If you’re looking for something heartfelt but not sentimental, dramatic without the heavy plot and quietly literary without being overstated, you’ll love this.

 

Nici West


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