The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss

The Tidal Zone Sarah Moss

The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss, Granta, 2016

There is so much that can be said about The Tidal Zone but I’ve been struggling to convey my experience of reading it and how to articulate just how much I love this book. What I can say is that it’s definitely one of my favourite books I’ve read this year and I’d urge you all to read it. Not only is it an absorbing novel, it’s one that truly captures and explores human fears in a powerful way. It’s an important book.

Occasional lecturer and stay-at-home dad, Adam, is writing a history of the bombing and rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral. His wife, Emma, is an overworked GP and they have two daughters, fifteen-year-old Miriam and nine-year-old Rose. They live a comfortable, middle-class life; they are happy. Then, one day, Adam gets a call from Miriam’s school – she has been found on the playing field, collapsed and not breathing, and her heart stopped. A teacher has revived her and the ambulance is on the way. Why did this happen? Will it happen again? And so begins a tedious wait at hospital as doctors test and retest Miriam to see what went wrong. But they can’t work out what caused it; sometimes these things happen, Adam and Emma are told, and it could happen again. What follows is the family rewriting their lives around this event, trying to carve out a new normal as they come to terms with the sudden reminder that life can end at any point.

There’s a palpable anxiety that underlies this novel. Adam has taken for granted the fact that his daughters will always breathe normally, that their bodies will function as they should, and that death is far away. It’s something that happens to other people.

‘People, mostly parents in the school playground which, of course, one of us still had to attend twice daily for Rose, said, ‘I can’t imagine what you and Emma must be going through’. It is exactly as you imagine it, I said. When you read accounts of ordinary lives disrupted by sudden disaster […] when you shiver and turn the page, it is like that. You can imagine it. What you imagine is correct’. p 8-9

When death is brought into their lives in such an unexpected way, there comes a shocking reminder – that life is fragile, it’s unpredictable, our bodies can stop working without warning, and our world, and our lives, are not safe.

Adam, and the novel, explores the question: how do you function in the world knowing that you can lose the ones you love so suddenly? Adam doesn’t want to leave his daughters’ sides: his fear takes the form of believing his presence is keeping them alive, it will protect them. The tangible anxiety that runs through this novel is one I’ve been left with after finishing the book, and has had a lasting impression.

What we also see in this book is Adam trying to reconcile this new fear with the knowledge that children die every day. How do you live with your fears whilst recognising and acknowledging that somewhere out there, it is so much worse for someone else?

‘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’. p 53

On the one hand The Tidal Zone feels like a book that’s very much of its time, one that feels very important to be reading now – Adam talks about Syria, the NHS, the politics of academia. But on the other, it’s very timeless: that fear of unexpected death, the uncertainty of the world, the fragility of life, of losing those we love, of having to adjust to a new, more frightening, normal – these are very human fears that we’ll continue to experience.

The theme of storytelling is a strong one throughout the book. The novel starts in the traditional storytelling way – once upon a time – with a beautiful chapter about a human who becomes Miriam being created. The idea of stories recurs again and again: the stories of our lives regularly being rewritten, the stories of Adam’s parents, the bombing and rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral, the stories we tell ourselves to allay our anxieties, and the idea that fiction makes us believe that our lives are like stories and how that makes us feel safe. All of these stories mesh together seamlessly and work well together.

‘A plan is a story about the future’ p 95

The book is a very internal one, written from Adam’s point of view. I like Adam’s voice – it’s quite distinctive with its dry and astute, wry and witty tone which is a joy to read. I also love that the book is written from his perspective. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book from the point of view of a stay-at-home father and I found it fascinating. Miriam is fantastic, too. I think Moss has perfectly pinpointed the voice of a fifteen-year old girl today – one who is politically knowledgeable, inquisitive, has strong opinions on feminism and gender and the evils of capitalism. Moss has also nailed that fierce belief teenagers often have of being right.

Moss’ writing is beautiful, absorbing and atmospheric, and I underlined so many passages while reading. The Tidal Zone is a book full of ideas that are explored and articulated so thoughtfully in wonderful prose. This novel is certainly going to be one of my top books of 2016, and I can’t wait to explore Sarah Moss’ previous novels and anything she writes next.

Have you read The Tidal Zone? What did you think?


21 thoughts on “The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss

  1. I’m so glad you enjoyed this. I was very disappointed that it didn’t make it on to the Man Booker longlist. I agree with you about Adam’s ‘wry and witty tone’. It leavened the heart wrenching theme of the novel beautifully.

    • It’s such a shame that it wasn’t included. Yes it worked really well didn’t it? I think the novel could have been a very sombre and melancholy one but the characters and voice really lifted it.

  2. I’d not heard of this before I read your review but like sound of it. It feels well-timed for personal reasons so am eager to read it. It’s on the list now and will be one I will look forward to.

  3. I read The Tidal Zone recently and I adored the read. It is my first book n=by Sarah Moss adn I look forward to reading more of her works.

    The whole time I felt as if I was in Adam’s head. It was heart breaking. I had to stop several times to compose myself. I do think The Tidal Zone is a brilliant book

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it, too! I completely agree about feeling as if you are in Adam’s head – I think this worked really well and made it more powerful. Thanks for reading and commenting 🙂

  4. I have seen this cover on Twitter a lot, and it’s called my attention that they actually show the face of a woman. Now that I’ve read your review, this is clealry one of the books I should read soon.

  5. It’s curious. Of course we all know that anyone we care about could vanish at any time, but there’s a difference to knowing that and seeing it demonstrated as it is here in the fiction. To have it present now, not potential later.

    Fascinating premise. I have an unread Moss (her second) which doesn’t hugely tempt. I may skip it and try this instead at some point.

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