This book tells the story of a family’s response to tragedy, in the form of their daughter’s unexpected and life threatening anaphylactic shock and the search for its cause.
The narrator of The Tidal Zone is Adam, a liberal stay-at-home Dad and part-time academic, who is researching the re-building of Coventry cathedral after the Second World War. As the book progresses, the reader finds out a lot about topics as varied as life in US communes and the health risks of keeping a cat. A great deal of ground on contemporary politics and ideas is also covered while he recounts conversations with his family as they try to move past their shock.
Like Adam they are all lovable idealists. His wife is a principled and overworked GP, his father a self-sufficient jack-of-all-trades, and his eldest daughter Miriam aspires to become a lawyer, talking with a precocious level of confidence and uncompromising strength of feeling about gender politics, the environment and minority rights, among other things.
I noticed that in the reviews of this book that I read in the broadsheets, a number of journalists have called it a ‘state of the nation’ novel. It takes a centre-left view on most things, which I loved, because I am sold on all the arguments of the left, but whatever side of the fence you sit on, this book will get you thinking about some of the most important issues in current affairs.
I’ll give you a couple of examples of the highly topical references that Sarah Moss touches on – after Miriam’s respiratory failure, one of the doctors taking a long time to come to a diagnosis is a ‘Dr Chalcott’. I also read an apocalyptic political reference to the betrayal of traditional labour values by Blair in some of the description on p.90: ‘four unkempt horses stood in a field with a coil of rusty barbed wire and something under a flapping blue tarpaulin’. As Miriam recuperates in hospital here are numerous asides and references to the underfunded NHS and its human cost on front line staff as economic imperatives force ruthless compromises in all sorts of ways. In relation to the way it tirelessly discussed the question of how to maintain a fair health system it reminded me a little of ‘So Much for That’ by Lionel Shriver. The sections on architectural history consciously invite comparison between the evacuees of blitzed Coventry and the refugees who are currently seeking safety from the turmoil in the Middle East and Africa. This book is not a light read.
Because once you start analysing all this, it becomes hard to stop, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out the reasoning behind the title, as half way through we were still in the heart of the Midlands. A tidal zone (as coastal dwellers will know) is the area along the seashore that is below the water at low tide and above it at high tide, and the penultimate scene sees Adam and his youngest daughter explore the beautiful creatures that live there, caught in the spaces where the water remains when the tide goes out. The question I then asked myself was what the tide represented – the flow of money into the welfare state? The flow of empathy and compassion towards people who are different? I couldn’t decide, but I knew throughout that this was a book with lots of symbols ripe for interpretation and reinterpretation, and rich in poetic prose.
The major drawback of this book is its stillness. While this allows for beautifully written moments of everyday life that are laden with metaphorical significance, it also means that the plot is not compelling, and doesn’t really offer a resolution or ending in a conventional sense. The journey the reader takes is Adam’s journey towards accepting the randomness with which tragedy can occur in anyone’s life.
Overall my reading experience was slow but rewarding. I am giving it 3 bites because whilst it is not a must-read, I appreciated the chance to spend some time thinking about the hard choices society is making in the company of this incredibly erudite and politically aware novelist. I can recommend to you my strategy if the debates get too overwhelming; visit somewhere beautiful to remind yourself of the capacity that nature and mankind has for good. Adam does.