“Deliberately pedestrian” – Tides by Sara Freeman

IMG_9Dec2021at003421A woman, whose name we only learn in the last third of the book is Mara, washes up in a small desolate Canadian seaside town with hardly any money and very few possessions. It is the end of the season, the tourists are leaving, many of the shops are closing and soon there is only the long winter ahead. But, for Mara this change is welcome:

“She prefers the town this way, she decides. The streets are dead, mild-mannered, resting after the seasonal pillage. A regular heartbeat after a period of strain. She is a little like the town, letting up after a period of overuse. Too much contact with other people, their chaffing on her; her chaffing on them.”

Mara is not a sympathetic character. She is clearly a lost soul, confused and grieving for something in her past. At one point she muses:

“She misses everyone, all at once. Or perhaps there is a missing so deep it has no single object, just a subject drowned out in the endless distance.”

Spending a few nights in a hostel before it closes for the winter and, later, in a cheap motel, she hangs around bars drinking away money she doesn’t have. She has sex with any man she thinks might help her. When she is completely destitute she takes a job in a wine and cheese shop. Here Freeman describes Mara’s day:

“She sweeps, she mops, she seeks out every errant crumb, every stuck fleck of cheese, fingerprint, dust settled on tops of boxes and cans. Everything, she discovers, can and must be wiped.”

The wife of her boss, Simon, has left him, taking their young daughter with her. Their respective losses creates a bond between these two lonely people. Unable to afford the motel for longer, Mara secretly takes up residence in a small storeroom above the shop, going to the town’s laundromat at the end of her shift to wait until Simon goes home. Then, using the key Simon has given her, she lets herself in through a back door and makes herself a bed with the rough, dusty blankets she finds in the storeroom. In the mornings she puts them back in the corner of the room where she found them.

The relationship between Mara and Simon begins shyly and tentatively. When she gets sick Mara takes herself back to the motel where, Jean, its owner, looks after her until she is well. Eventually the two become good friends. On her return to work Mara finds a mattress, pillows, sheets and a box of blankets in the storeroom. She realises that Simon has been aware that she has been sleeping there. When Mara tries to thank him, Simon waves her away, telling her, “it’s nothing”.

Christmas arrives and Simon finds himself needing to get out of the house while his sister is visiting. He turns up at the shop with a box of clothes which his wife, Charlotte, has left behind and he thinks Mara might like. The two become lovers with Simon regularly spending nights in the storeroom with Mara. Here Freeman, somewhat randomly, explains the reason for her novel’s title:

“In bed, one night, when they are tired out and nearly bored, he explains about the tides: the forces of the moon and sun; their endless tug of war. Some of the earliest tidal mills, he says, propping himself up on his elbows, date all the way back to the seventh century. He tries to describe the mechanism to her, the rush and release of water, the churning of grain into flour, but she knows that later she’ll remember instead the tendon in his neck straining as he talks, the clavicle lifting like a lock, the Adam’s apple bobbing as he swallows.”

But, then, Charlotte returns. Simon tells Mara she can no longer live in the storeroom. Their relationship was only ever going to be temporary, he says. Even though her husband is unhappy about the arrangement, Jean allows Mara to stay in the bedroom of her young son who passed away some years earlier.

Throughout the novel Freeman drip-feeds the reader with Mara’s backstory. The fact that she has a brother, Paul, to whom she was close until he married. We learn that Mara herself was married and that the source of her grief is a miscarriage she suffered. It’s a devastation so great that she needed to get away from everyone she knew and start her life afresh somewhere else. The novel ends with Mara realising she is pregnant with Simon’s baby and packing her bags to get on a bus that will take her to yet another new destination.

Freeman tells her story in short, vignette-style paragraphs without chapters and using mainly reported speech. Her straight forward, unadorned prose borders on the mundane and some readers may struggle to maintain interest in what the author has to say. Conceivably, Freeman’s writing style is deliberately pedestrian in order to make it resonate with the bleakness of her tale. If that is, indeed, her intention it is debatable whether this literary ploy is entirely successful.

Any Cop?: A strange, somewhat depressing read.

Carola Huttmann

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