The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss (2016)

Stories have endings; that’s why we tell them, for reassurance that there is meaning in our lives. But like a diagnosis, a story can become a prison, a straight road mapped out by the people who went before. Stories are not the truth.

Rave reviews of Sarah Moss’ The Tidal Zone caught my attention and I decided I had to read it. I’ve read two of her earlier novels, Cold Earth, a stunning ghost story, and Bodies of Light, a mesmerizing historical novel. I enjoyed them very much and was pretty certain I would love The Tidal Zone as well. Unfortunately, I was wrong. I liked it but didn’t love it. I’m not exactly sure, why I didn’t warm to this ambitious book. It offers so much. Meditations on life and death, gender, politics, family life, illness, the NHS . . . I could go on.

It’s the story of a family that almost unravels when the heart of the 15-year-old daughter, Miriam, stops. Miriam survives the episode but has to stay at the hospital for a long time as it’s not clear what brought on this reaction. She seems to suffer from some type of allergy. Adam, a stay-at-home dad, spends most of his time at her side, only occasionally replaced by his overworked wife, a doctor, who works for the NHS.

Many reviewers called this a “state of the nation” novel and that’s accurate. It definitely looks at the way people live in Britain now. Or rather, the way middle-class, white people live in England. Adam’s a bit of a failed academic and is working on writing something about the Coventry cathedral. The book alternates between reflections on the cathedral, which was, along with most of the city, destroyed during WWII. Like Miriam’s incident, the stories that are told in these parts are about human frailty and the unpredictability of life. But they also help to illustrate the family history as Adam’s Jewish dad was born in the US. The family fled Europe during the war.

Fiction is the enemy of history. Fiction makes us believe in structure, in beginnings and middles and endings, in tragedy and comedy. There is neither tragedy nor comedy in war, only disorder and harm.

While I didn’t warm to this book, I enjoyed many of its parts. This is a family of intellectuals who seem to love a good argument. The descriptions of family life are often hilarious. Miriam’s a great, great character.

Here’s  her answer to her dad’s question whether she’ll go with him to Coventry cathedral:

It’ll take more than coloured glass and old music to make me sign up to homophobia, misogyny and the grandfather of all patriarchal institutions.

She’s bright, very political and engaged. She will never let anyone get away with bullshit. It was so refreshing to read their repartees.

She had joined Amnesty International and Greenpeace and the Green Party. She said patriarchy and hegemony and neo-liberalism, several times a day. She put streaks of blue in her hair and enjoyed baiting her teachers by wearing mascara: but Miss, you’re wearing makeup. But Sir, aren’t you just inducting us into a world more interested in policing women’s sexuality than giving us knowledge?

Obviously, this isn’t your every day family as Adam’s a stay-at-home dad. While it does sound like hard work at times and he makes huge efforts to ensure that the family always has clean clothes, nourishing, healthy meals and that the house is clean and tidy, we never hear it mentioned that he struggles. I found that interesting because I can’t remember every reading a novel about a stay-at-home mum who also was an academic and tried to get work done and it sounded so harmonious. I wonder if that was a conscious choice and if so, why. I remember that the mothers in Sarah Moss’ earlier books struggled quite a bit with motherhood.

As you see, there’s a lot to love here. So why didn’t I warm to this? The book had the misfortune of reminding me of Ian McEwan’s Saturday. None of the characters is even remotely as obnoxious as those in Saturday, still, there’s a similarity. Probably because the characters both occupy the same social territory. Or maybe I didn’t warm to this because Sarah Moss tried hard to show us another side of her talent. While the other novels I read were very atmospheric and spoke to the senses, this one speaks purely to the mind and – depending on the reader – to the emotions. Since I had no emotional reaction to this, it spoke only to my mind, which wasn’t enough for me to love it.

24 thoughts on “The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss (2016)

  1. This was my first Sarah Moss novel and I didn’t warm much to it either. I listened to it earlier in the year and the narrator was fairly emotionless which lead to a bit of flatness in the story. To be honest though, I don’t think I would have loved it if I had read it either. My favourite character was Adam’s father – such an earthy character.

    • I’m glad to hear I’m not alone as everyone else was raving so much. Tears were mentioned and I just couldn’t really care about tthe illness. I found many moments funny but overall – flat. An emotionless narrator did certainly not help.

  2. Great Review Caroline.

    The plot, themes and characters sound all sound very interesting to me. I have not read any of Moss’s other books so I would have missed the emotional contrast that you pointed out. This makes me wonder how reading an author’s other works might change one’s reading experience. I just read Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. I think that having read other works from Wharton influenced my perception.

    • Thank you, Brian.
      I think I expected something a little bit different coming from her earlier novels. They are all so different. I can’t really detect a voice that’s typical for her. Ethan Frome is very different from her other novels. At least from the longer ones but there’s a mood I found elsewhere in her work.
      I think many people loved how much The Tidal Zone was rooted in contemporary Britain. And I agree. That was very well done.

  3. It’s interesting to see another perspective on this one. A little like you, I remember reading lots of glowing reviews of this when it first came out – and yet for some reason, the central premise didn’t particularly appeal to me at the time. I wasn’t keen on Saturday either, so given your comments it’s probably not the right book for me. (Or maybe it would be better to say that I’m probably to the right reader for the book.) What a shame it didn’t fly with you in quite the same way as her earlier novels.

  4. I read Signs for Lost Children and enjoyed it so much, I wanted to read everything else by Sarah Moss. I have Night Waking (not read yet) but was unable to find this particular one at the library.

  5. LIke you, I loved Bodies of Light and immediately ordered this one. But I stalled about about 50 pages in. Affectlessness is not my favourite literary mode, and the book just felt flat to me. I suspect Moss might be trying to make something of that flatness, but I wasn’t really in the mood to find out. Maybe I’ll return to it another time. But I was kind of glad to see it left you cold too.

    • “Affectlessness” is the perfect way to describe this. There’s a passage, which I forgot to quote, that might offer insight into why she chose to write like that. The character, at one point, muses about sentimental war stories saying he hates it when people turn WWII into a moodboard. I couldn’t agree more but there’s got to be a balance between moodboard and flatness. I suppose, she didn’t want to tell this story of an illness like a moodboard.

  6. The quotes were amazing. Now that you have mentioned that the book didn’t evoke an emotional reaction in you, I am not sure if I would read the book. I struggle with books which fail to speak to my heart. The ones which allow me to approach them from a visceral point of view, travel with me longer. Loved your review, Caroline. Thank you!

    • Thank you, Deepika.
      Those quotes are great, right? And there were so many more. It’s highly quotable but it just left me cold. I feel like you, A book needs to speak to my heart and soul it gave beautiful language and descriptions.

  7. That’s so interesting. I do think it’s true that we are meant to pull back from the emotional weight of this story. I think it might have seemed sentiment-soaked if we got too close to it, because it’s such an emotive situation. But, then, the part of it that most appealed to me was a part that might not have inherently appealed to you, the way that the characters each constructed their responses – in stories and narratives – to this event/situation – often in a way which keeps emotions at a distance, so that they can continue with their day-to-day living, even though everything feels so much more fragile to them now. I haven’t read her others, but this one definitely made me curious and I was very pleased to see that she had written so many more! Hope your next will connect with you in a more satisfying way. That is, if you plan to read another?

    • I think that what she did is very realistic and mirrors how many people cope with tragedy but for a reader?
      I really liked her other books, so I might read her older novels but I’ll hesitate to pick the next one.

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