The trope of the ordinary family facing a medical emergency which tries their relationships is the bones of a thousand TV soaps. Sarah Moss’s The Tidal Zone opens with such a medical emergence, a teenager’s unexpected anaphylaxis and cardiac arrest. It is an incident which would occupy five minutes’ attention on a hospital soap. Moss, however, eschews sensationalism. Instead she takes the incidence and its consequences and stretches out onto a broad, rich canvas, tracing the ripples it sends out through time and memory. She pulls the reader through the narrative with the hooks of so called “sick lit”, but avoids high-octane drama and a simplistic resolution. We are instead given an exquisite exploration of parental anxiety, dependence and human frailty.
The novel is written from the perspective of Adam Goldschmidt, a ‘househusband’ sporadically employed as a lecturer, whose daughter Miriam suddenly and inexplicable goes into cardiac arrest in a field at school. Adam’s voice is well realised, he is astute yet uncynical. For example, when he yearns for normality Moss captures both Adam’s extreme distress and self-awareness well, in “May we live long enough to despise the cliches again, may we heal enough to take for granted the sky and water and light, because the state of blind gratitude for breath and blood is not a position of intelligence.”Adam knows how his crisis pales in comparison to the endless global massacres that flicker by on the news. Crisis and emotional turmoil are written without sentimentality, but it is not dispassionate.We share in Adam’s anxiety which drives him to his children’s rooms at night to check they are still breathing, the novel is tense with foreboding and dread which Moss thankfully doesn’t give into releasing in a sensationalist conclusion.
Adam is the archetype of the good modern father. Gender politics savvy, devoted to his children and overworked GP wife but knows not to crow about it. A man in a woman’s world, he washes his daughter’s underwear yet gets suspected of paedophilia for taking his daughter to a swimming pool. He’s at the cross hairs of a culture war. He enjoys the routines of family life and is ambivalent about the academic world he drifts through, playing with toy knights in a meeting. Without over-egging the point (as Adam would no doubt insist upon) it is refreshing to see a father embrace without regret the domestic life, and it not be the focus of the novel, it would work just as well if Adam and his wife Emma swapped roles.
An interesting aspect of this novel is the relationship between Miriam and Adam. Miriam is a moderately rebellious whip-sharp fifteen year old. She’s at a stage where she can sign herself up to a political party but needs to be reminded to wear her coat. She fucked the patriarchy and got the T-shirt, but her parents won’t let her wear the shirt in public. She is not the tragic elfin heroine of much YA sick lit. Adam is a moderating influence on her rather than a disciplinarian, and respects her independence and unique vivacity. His is not a smothering love but an awestruck love. He seems to ask himself, “how have I made that?” The parent’s manner of seeing their own children as miracles brings into focus the miraculous nature of a human life even beginning and continue to be, but no amount of love can stop a body from failing.
Scattered through the narrative of Miriam’s anaphylaxis is exerts from Adam’s history of the rebuild of Coventry Cathedral after it’s destruction in the Blitz. The theme of recovery and moving past trauma, medical and architectural, is obvious, and shows well how an academic’s subject colours their personal life. Less successful are Adam’s grandfather’s tales of his Holocaust-survivor parents and his time in communes, which add little to a novel already rich in meaning.
But the novel’s structure is wonderful. It’s tight, neat focus on the days between Miriam’s cardiac arrest to a holiday six months later stops it from bloating indulgently. The chapters are slices of no more than ten pages which make the narrative as episodic as life and memory and allowing the other narrative threads to slot between the main events.
Aside from what the blurb would tell you there is no real plot to The Tidal Zone If it was accidentally shelved next to the misery memoirs and sick lit, there would be a lot of disappointed customers, to give no spoilers. But Moss’ more impressionistic literary approach captures what crisis and trauma is really like. Those events that feel like a punch but lingers like a bruise, changing the skin but not developing.
In The Tidal Zone, Moss shows how crisis crystallizes what would otherwise slip you by, and acts as a catalyst for seeing the past and the future differently.