The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss

Illustration by Britanny Richmond

Originally published in The Courtauldian.

The Tidal Zone is book that feels very close. It is about the pain of a loved one almost being taken away in seemingly random circumstances, and what that can do to family. It’s about the NHS, further education, politics, love and the first world problems of the middle classes being shrunk into insignificance.

It follows Adam, a stay-at-home Dad who is writing about the history of Coventry Cathedral for a geolocative app, an attempt to revive his half-hearted career as an art historian. His wife is a busy GP, and his two daughters are normal children until one day when the eldest, Miriam, stops breathing. Suddenly everything Adam ever thought about parenting, about life is questioned as he strives to help Miriam in her recovery and hold the family together.

Sarah Moss is a formidable, intelligent writer who refuses to take any short-cuts or the easy way out. She faces trauma and pain head-on, and through the voice of Miriam (who is more intellectually and politically awake than many people ever will be) picks apart the contradictions, inequality and bullshit in our media today.

“She 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.”

The story is woven with three strands: the present day where the family are dealing with the shock of Miriam’s incident, bits of history of Coventry Cathedral from Adam’s research (a touch laboured, but interesting nonetheless), and the story of Adam’s hippy American father and English mother meeting (where it becomes increasingly probable that she died of what Miriam narrowly escaped).

It is bravely set in the absolute present with the politics and culture in the book feeling very familiar. There are some delicious parts set in the history of art department at Warwick University, including a little tirade on the hypocrisy of Marxist academics in comfortable, affluent jobs who no longer know anything about the proletariat.

The short chapters, jumps in place and subject and Moss’s clear, unadorned writing style make it easy to sink into the story and feel very present within it. Some have found Adam too irritating and unrealistic, arguing that the book is only getting attention because he is a stay-at-home Dad, and that if he was a woman, it would be classed as a woman’s domestic drama. This misses the point and makes me marvel at how female authors are damned if they do, damned if they don’t. Choosing a Dad as a narrator opens up far more interesting avenues and adds another layer to the book; the way he is treated by the mums at school, how human characteristics are not always gender specific, and modern masculinity are all examined.

The world of The Tidal Zone and its characters have stayed with me long after reading it. It’s one to savour, and to pause occasionally, to feel the pathos of the story. Soon after finishing, I greedily delved into Moss’s previous books and am yet to be disappointed.

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