“A very twenty-first-century novel” – The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss #WBP2019

The day fifteen-year-old Miriam Goldschmidt collapses on the school’s playing fields, the lives of her family change for ever. Like being plagued by a nagging toothache her parents are consumed by an all-embracing fear that it will happen again and that next time it will be fatal. It is a situation that anyone with children will no doubt understand and sympathise with.

Essentially a meditation on contemporary English middle class life The Tidal Zone is a very twenty-first-century novel. Its concerns are many of the things which have occupied the human consciousness for the past two decades – capitalist consumerism, recycling, exercising, keeping safe, helicopter parenting, healthy eating and food allergies. Together with the commentary on the state of the NHS the thread of ‘then’ and ‘now’ runs through the novel like a vital blood supply.

Stay-at-home husband and dad, Adam, tells the story of his family from his own standpoint. A part-time academic he is writing a book about the bombing of Coventry Cathedral in November 1940 and the trials of its subsequent rebuilding. During a visit to the city as part of his research he sees it as a metaphor for British modernity manifested not only in Coventry, but in the country as a whole.

“Vulgar and ostentatious buildings for tasteless new money, hundreds new houses all the same, piled on top of each other with no gentlemanly privacy. Huge brutal windows, all very well for those looking out, but glaring and inhumanly geometric for passers-by.”

When he isn’t writing and researching his book, Adam does the family’s laundry, cooking, the school run ferrying Miriam and her eight-year-old sister, Rose back and forth. As they wait for Emma, wife, mother and overworked, GP to arrive home from work Adam oversees his daughters’ homework. The telephone call telling him “there was an incident” concerning Miriam changes this well-established routine in an instance. During the fortnight Miriam is in hospital attached to monitors and undergoing tests to discover the trigger for her idiopathic anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction which can be fatal, Adam and Emma are run ragged with stress and worry, taking it in turns to stay with the patient overnight. Miriam is bored and we come to know her precocious stroppy side. She is unusually critical for someone of her age and has something caustic to say on just about every topic under discussion. TV is, she says “the opiate of the masses”; shopping malls are “temples of capitalist decadence”; going to church is “signing up to homophobia, misogyny and the grandfather of all patriarchal institutions” and eating Chinese food in England with chopsticks is “pretentious at best and racist at worst”.

The most well-drawn character is Adam himself, as the novel’s narrator. Given that the story is about his family that might come as a bit of a surprise. The way he ruminates over his worries about Miriam makes them more tangible somehow than Emma’s whose characterisation seems to mirror her distance and absence from her family while she is at work, as well as emotionally. The novel’s ending is well executed and believable, providing a conclusion that is both satisfying and an invitation to think over what one has read long after the last page has been turned. Rose is a sweet, typical eight-year-old with age-appropriate concerns and desires. Overall, Moss’ depiction of the Goldschmidt family is one of honesty and warmth and one any reader in a household of similar dynamics and circumstances can readily identify with.

Two secondary narratives supply a degree of emotional distance from the family’s trauma. The first is Adam’s research into the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral with some quite lengthy interesting accounts of the difficulties and obstructions faced by the designer of the new building, Bill Spence. The other is the backstory of Adam’s father which he relates to Miriam on the pretext of keeping her entertained when he visits from Cornwall to help out while his granddaughter is in hospital.

Sarah Moss’ academic background is clearly evident in the telling of her story. The debate about the highs and lows of the NHS and its staffing are insightful and one feels, informed, whilst the chapters on the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral are intelligent and obviously well-researched. Very occasionally her writing and the family’s discussions feel a little too erudite to be a true representation of the average English middle class family which seems to be her aim. One might also say that the novel’s exploration of class has a slightly obsessive quality to it. Her observations are nevertheless astute, if perhaps not quite as relevant to the social and economic climate of the 21st century in which greater equality and opportunities have become the norm than she wishes to make her reader believe.

Any Cop?: The Tidal Zone is one of the most discerning novels about middle-class family life written in the last twenty years. Its exploration of every parent’s nightmare is brave and commendable.

 

Carola Huttmann

 

 

 

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