The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss: Living in uncertain times

Cover imageI’m something of a Sarah Moss fan having thoroughly enjoyed the closely linked Bodies of Light and Signs for Lost Children,  set in the nineteenth century, and Names for the Sea, her account of her year spent in Iceland. Her writing draws you in: it’s imaginative, witty and she knows how to spin a good story. The Tidal Zone leaps forward two centuries from her last novel to the present day when Adam gets a call from his daughter’s school. Miriam has been found collapsed and not breathing. Now resuscitated, she’s about to be rushed to hospital.

Adam is a stay-at-home father and has been since Miriam was born fifteen years ago. He has a part-time job teaching at the local university, while his wife Emma is a GP, caught up in working sixty hours a week with little energy left over for anything else. After her collapse, Miriam spends the next two weeks in hospital enduring a battery of tests – scared but determinedly hiding it under a stream of lacerating sarcasm. She’s a bright, articulate teenager, fully equipped with the well-developed, self-righteous political awareness that goes with that particular territory. Adam keeps the household afloat, taking the increasingly resentful eight-year-old Rose to school and spending all the hours he can at Miriam’s side while Emma continues to work, reaching for her daughter’s notes the minute she arrives at her bedside. It is, of course, every parent’s nightmare. Adam picks at his Coventry Cathedral project in the hope of distraction whenever Emma insists he goes home. His father’s arrival from Cornwall brings a little air into this claustrophobic situation, distracting the increasingly angry Miriam with the story of his search for a better life back in 1960s America. Slowly but surely the family begins to understand that life will be different in future. All the old certainty has been undermined, shown to be an illusion, and now they must learn to live with the opposite.

Beginning in the traditional fashion with ‘once upon a time’ when Miriam is conceived – Adam tells us his own story, interspersing it with both his father’s and the history of Coventry Cathedral, rebuilt in the city’s bombed ashes. One phone call throws all the cards in his world up into the air, the constant background hum of parental anxiety turned sharply up. It’s not long before guilt rears its head in the shape of genetic inheritance, augmented by the radio’s  litany of violence done to children in less fortunate countries. Moss’ writing is compassionate, sensitive and clear-eyed but she is careful to underpin Adam’s narrative with a wry humour, steering it well clear of the maudlin. She has a brilliantly sharp eye for characterisation. Adam and Emma are good middle-class parents who resist cries for junk food, carefully explain how the world works to their eight-year-old and tolerate the barbs of their fifteen-year-old. Both Rose and Miriam are beautifully caught at their particular ages: Rose’s incessant demands for a cat together with her resentment at the attention given to Miriam and Miriam’s political idealism, cloaked in an adolescent cynicism which hides a new-found vulnerability, ring out loud and true. This is not an easy subject to handle without becoming sentimental or melodramatic but Moss succeeds beautifully, presenting a nuanced portrait of a family going about their business, juggling the multitude of things that need to be juggled to keep the show on the road, suddenly thrown into a chasm of uncertainty with which they must learn to deal. If I have a quibble it’s that the Coventry Cathedral sections interrupted the narrative flow in the middle a little, but that’s a small criticism. Another triumph, then, and, with its medical theme, surely bound for an appearance on next year’s Wellcome Trust Book Prize shortlist, just as Bodies of Light and Signs for Lost Children did before it.

10 thoughts on “The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss: Living in uncertain times”

  1. I read Bodies of Light on the recommendation of several reviews, including yours I think. Keep meaning to read the sequel, set in my town in Cornwall, but it’s still working its way up the pile. This one also sounds good.

    1. I hope you enjoy it when you get around to it. This one’s very different although it shares that same medical theme.

  2. I didn’t realize her other books had medical themes, as well. I have some catching up to do!
    I’m also interested in the perspective of the stay-at-home father.

    1. Yes, she must have quite an interest in that area. I’m beginning to wonder if there’s a bit of a trend in the stay-at-home father theme although I know from reading Names for the Sea that Moss’ and her husband chose that route.

    1. There’s always that niggling worry about a book by an author you love, isn’t there, but this one’s just as good if not better than her previous novels.

  3. I saw this review pop up in my inbox yesterday and spent all day avoiding it and supressing my desire to go out and buy all of Sarah Moss’s books (including this one). I did, eventually, resist (but am still extremely tempted). This book sounds amazing. Moss is a great writer. It’s nice to see the normalisation of stay at home fathers; my husband has been a stay at home father for many years now and he does a far better job than me. Imagine men having emotional stability and a caring nature? It is more true than all the clichés would have us believe.
    Great review Susan. I’m glad you brought Moss to my attention, despite all my complaining!

    1. Thank you, Belinda, and I do hope you’ll find it worth being led astray! So interesting to hear about your husband. I’d love to hear what he thinks of The Tidal Zone. I know Moss’ husband took that route, too.

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