books, Reading, Women Writers

“The Tidal Zone” by Sarah Moss

“There is a large overlap between ordinary families and those to whom terrible things have happened. It is possible, necessary, to be both.”


“The Tidal Zone” is the story of Adam, a man with little-to-no professional ambition who is caring and content to raise his two daughters, Miriam and Rose,  and to support his physician wife Emma, while dabbling in academia when he finds the time.

“Mostly I’m a stay-at-home dad. A full-time parent. ‘A man of leisure’, says Emma’s dad, who is a surgeon and the kind of man who shrinks your new cashmere jumper so he’s never asked to run another load of laundry, who has the brass neck to assert that although he can and does implant titanium replacements for worn-out knees and hips, the concept of a washing machine’s spin speed is beyond his comprehension. He means to say that I’m a scrounger, a layabout, his daughter’s feckless lodger. I’d forgive everything if he were nice to her, if he had ever let Emma imagine herself adequate as doctor, daughter or human being.”

Adam is self-deprecating, wry, and yet secure in the world. He is a fully round character, believably invested in his family and domesticated without being emasculated in the slightest. His is a “modern” family, a demonstration of how gender roles can be upended and how that impacts familial interactions. Moss’s choice to tell the story from the point of view of a man, but one who has taken on traditionally female roles, is an interesting one. She seems to absolutely capture the essence of this stay-at-home dad, avoiding cliched mishaps and bungling in favor of allowing her characters to be competent and fully adjusted to their roles.

Adam’s contentment and trust in routine is shattered when he receives a call from Miriam’s school telling him there has been an ‘incident.’ Miriam has, in fact, had more than an incident – her breathing and her heart have stopped, started back only after several minutes of CPR and ambulance intervention. The rest of the novel is about how the family struggles to uncover what has caused this traumatic event, how to prevent it in the future, and, most urgently, how to move forward in a world suddenly so uncertain.

“How do you do it, I wanted to ask the nurses, how do you return every day to this place where families have fallen into ruin, how do you live in a world where it is normal for children to die and parents to grieve? Except that we all live in that world, don’t we, only some of us, most of us in Britain today, are able to pretend otherwise. It is normal for children to die. Look at Syria, at Palestine, at Eritrea and Somalia. Look at the tidelines of beaches in Italy and Greece. Look, while we are on the subject, at certain parts of Chicago and Los Angeles. The nurses’ world, the hospital version of normality, is true and what most of us here and now regard as ordinary life is a lie.”

Adam’s struggles are heart-rending, poignant, and achingly true. His fears and foibles resonate perfectly. And through it all, Moss manages to sustain a glimmer of hope, a belief that life goes on and this new, terrifying reality is endurable.

Sarah Moss’s characters are a delight, particularly Adam and Miriam, the stars of the story. Where Adam is open, caring, and gentle, Miriam is a precocious but not pretentious teenager. With acerbic wit and a preternatural ability to see through so much of the bullshit of the adult world, Miriam is edgy and lovable all at once. Her critiques, while sometimes harsh, are rarely inaccurate; her fears, while extreme, are more than justified. Her voice provides simultaneous comic relief and gravity. For instance, her tirade against television is sparkling:

“[S]he never watches it at home, accuses her mother of being hooked on the opiate of the masses, stands about pointing out that costume dramas feed the English fetish for poshness, for the adulation of unearned wealth and privilege; that the news is hopelessly parochial and the cookery shows Emma enjoys glorify not only domestic labour but the consumption of exactly the ingredients we’re all being told to avoid. It’s an eating disorder on a national scale, she says, watching Emma watching people ice cakes with butter and cream and chocolate and fill pies with caramel and condensed milk, we’re all obsessed with obesity and weight loss and also fucking baking.”

Similarly, she eviscerates a family friend whose academic pursuits bemoan the loss of and venerate a connection to nature.

“‘It’s a pile of bullshit about how he’s weighed down by sorrow for my generation, only not like normal adults are because we’re being badly educated for jobs that don’t exist in an economy that condemns us to poverty and homelessness at levels not seen since before the first World War but because we can’t tell the difference between the lesser marshwort and the – the flowering marsh grass which all goes to show that we’re losing our vital and precious sense of being at one with the natural world, rather than for example showing that the world’s moved on and by the time we’re grown up two-thirds of the global population will be living in cities and not actually giving a fuck about the lesser marshwort and it doesn’t seem to have crossed his sorrowful little mind that if we all went and joined him communing with the fauna of furthest outer Scotland it would in fact be full of people and he’d have to find somewhere else to be superior…’ “

Sarah Moss has created something special in “The Tidal Zone”. The first chapter seems, in hindsight, a bit out of place, almost as though it were from an earlier draft before the voice of the piece became clear. However, this was a minor stumbling block, for by the first few phrases of chapter two, the narrative has come into its own and is absolutely sure-footed and riveting. This was a novel that I devoured, not wanting to put it down and partially dreading its completion. Moss’s work is exceptional; her creation of an alternate reality in which a reader can disappear and become fully immersed is flawless; her characters will linger in my memory.

Thank you to Granta for the complimentary copy in exchange for an honest and fair review. 

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