Reviewed by Alice Farrant
A relationship with death, or the prospect of it, is like being a member of a horrible club because to know death is to know something that only people like you understand. If a relative has died, you are dying, someone you love has a near death experience…, no one else can replicate the feelings those situations produce without experiencing them.
Which is why The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss is such a brilliant novel. It follows Adam as he learns that his teenage daughter Miriam has collapsed at school, and for a few minutes, died. Moss dissects Adam, his wife Emma, and their two daughters Miriam and Rose as they cope with the new life they have begun to live. One where death isn’t something that happens to other people, it becomes a very real threat to their existence, and eventually, brings them closer together.
Moss’s writing is sparse, free of as many speech marks as possible. At times the writing feels deeply descriptive, and at others totally devoid of anything but Adam’s immediate thoughts. The novel speaks with Adam’s voice, as though we are reading his thoughts. An abundance of speech marks would have felt superfluous amongst Adam’s ruminative thinking.
Enjoy the bluebells when you can because they are not symbols, just flowers. They have no power.
The writing reflects Adam’s cynicism, his anxiety. As soon as Miriam collapses the family is thrown into a Schrodinger’s Cat situation; without really knowing what caused Miriam to almost die she is both dead and alive. What makes this situation believable, and avoids the saccharine, is how Adam tells his story. It’s not intentionally pulling on heartstrings, this is a man scared his daughters may die.
As Miriam lies in hospital, irritated by her confinement, wheezing as occasionally she struggles to breathe, Adam and Emma begin to redefine their lives by her near death experience. Emma is a GP, she falls into her work to understand and escape her pain. Adam is a stay at home dad, occasionally working as a lecturer at a University and researching Coventry Cathedral. His research turns to the maudlin, where he starts to see death where perhaps before he wouldn’t have noticed. Miriam’s illness causes him to see his work differently, to suddenly notice the death in the world, in the present and the past.
I was finding it as hard to read as Emma was to eat: nothing was what I wanted.
This anxiety and panic pour from the pages. It draws out all the negatives in their lives: Adam becomes resentful and Emma hides at work. Adam begins to hate Emma slightly, hate himself. It’s an experience so alien to anyone but them as a family, there is no capacity to understand outside of being in it, and for a while they don’t know how to express this to each other.
I’m the primary carer, the one whose name and number are first on the forms. I’m the one they call when there’s an incident and I’m the one who got here first so go home, Emma, go click your heels and earn your money. Our Money. The money that pays for the roof over all of our heads and the food on all of our plates, the shoes on our feet and the books on our shelves.
Placing Adam, rather than Emma, as the parent who stays at home caring for the family was an interesting choice that was fascinating to read. Adam is judged, and judges himself, as the parent who isn’t the bread winner. Yet, this is in a way that isn’t a man trying to express his masculinity. It never felt as though Adam felt emasculated by Emma, he loves his children, but he is aware of the perception of their displacement of traditional familial rules.The patriarchy doesn’t just affect women in our society, men are judged when they take on perceived female roles, not just in terms of appearing more feminine, but being judged as someone dangerous in usually female settings.
In one scene Adam is at a birthday party for a friend of Rose. It’s at a swimming pool and men are not allowed in the women’s changing rooms. As Adam waits for Rose to come out, he is staring at the exit thinking of Miriam when he is suddenly accused of being there for less than ideal intentions. Even when he says he is waiting for his daughter he is warned that his actions are strange and he should move on. A man around children in a typically female environment is seen as predatory.
Radicals and revolutionaries in every generation, Mimi, don’t forget that, don’t blame your parents or even your grandparents for the ways of the world.
Alongside Adam and Emma, and their anxiety, Miriam and Rose stand out as very intelligent and headstrong characters. Miriam is a social warrior, fighting for equal rights wherever she perceives injustice. She is a teenager to be admired, however, she also lacks tact. In a very young person way, she shouts out her opinions to her parents, dismissing their interests and points of view. She knows best, they’ve ruined the world and she needs to fix it. I was the same as a teenager, and it was interesting to read Adam’s hurt at his daughter’s reactions.
It’s such an accurate depictions of how, as a teenager, you never realise how you can hurt your parents with your judgement and strong opinions. Opinions you don’t think about when it’s okay to express them and when it isn’t. It’s a selfish age when you think you’re so much smarter and you can’t understand the worth of other people’s actions.
The Tidal Zone is a powerful and layered reading experience, fearful of the present, but hopeful for the future. I was expecting another ‘struggling male’ story and instead I got the story of a family, history, anxiety and love. An essential read.
Sarah Moss, The Tidal Zone, (Granta, 2016). 978-1783783076, 336pp., paperback.
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