Yes, a little later than might be expected, forgive me, I have no idea what I’ve been doing with myself. The month of May was rather jam-packed between a ramble to Lisbon for Eurovision, Liverpool Light Night and flat viewings pretty much every weekend. Thankfully I did manage to get some reading done, mostly on planes.
At one point this month I looked at the three paperbacks I was currently working my way through at various paces and realised that every single one of them pivots around the death of daughter. It was bone-chilling. First, Sarah Moss’ The Tidal Zone, begun over a pot of tea in Petit Cafe du Coin, finished with a Eurovision hangover in Lisbon; and Beloved by Toni Morrison which I began in mid-April and carried around in my rib cage until the end of May.
The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss
This is the third book by Sarah Moss that I’ve read in as many years (and I’ve read one of them twice already). She has become one of my all time favourite authors and the beauty and brilliance of her writing has become the sky-high bar by which I judge my own and every one else’s work. No wonder then, that I’ve taken so bloody long to put these words down on paper.
Because The Tidal Zone has been floating around in my mind since I put the paperback down on an iron-wrought table on a Barrio Alto balcony in mid-May. That’s the magic of Sarah Moss – she stays with you long after the final pages have fallen back between the shadow of the covers. It was the same with Bodies of Light and again with the sequel, Signs for Lost Children – the characters become dear friends, the scenes of Manchester, Cornwall, rural Japan which Moss paints with such colour and atmosphere, become intertwined with your own memories, her words give a voice to things we dare not utter, shed light on things which so often linger in the shadows. The Tidal Zone is no exception.
Published by Granta Books in 2016, The Tidal Zone follows the heartrending unease of Adam, as he carefully navigates family life in a new, stark world where death is suddenly possible, all the while listening in fear to the intimate sound of his eldest daughter’s breathing. Fifteen-year-old Miriam has collapsed at school. Her heart simply stopped. She stopped breathing. And now Adam lives on the edge of that almost-tragedy, scared it could stop again at any moment and bear forth all the unthinkable things that have plagued him since. It is the obvious, gut-wrenching shock of that moment that I also found in Maggie O’Farrell’s I am, I am, I am, the realisation of what the words actually mean – that someone that you love will die, could die, at any moment, and you will not be able to fix it.
“You worry, I thought, you worry about your children crossing the road. You worry, after a few days, that her fever might be meningitis, not flu, especially when she starts a rash. You worry that bad boys will seduce her and she won’t see what you can see. You worry that her own inexperience and the darkness of the world will harm her, even though you know that only experience of the darkness of the world will protect her, that you can’t and shouldn’t do it yourself for ever. You worry that she will go to the wrong sort of party and take the wrong sort of drugs, or board a plane on the same day as an angry person with nothing to lose. But you don’t worry, it doesn’t cross your mind, that one day she will simply stop breathing, go into cardiac arrest on the school playing fields, not because a car has crushed her or because a virus has made her sick or because a blade has made her bleed or fire has burnt her flesh, no because. How could you live if you worried about that?”
Adam, and his wife Emma, a doctor, can process the how – the mechanics of a heart stopping, lungs deflating, the mercy of a PE teacher who knew CPR – but the why baffles everyone. The unknown reaction which has caused their lives to suddenly pause, continues to elude them, making Miriam’s life, her second chance, all the more fragile, which for a bold as brass teenager, is terrifyingly sobering.
Away from this all-consuming dread of what might have been or could still happen, is Coventry Cathedral which Adam has been researching and writing about when life is suddenly changed. He retreats to the story of the architecture, the history of something solid built from the ruins of the second world war, the bombs which fell over night and changed life with one fell swoop.
And from that world history, another more personal one weaves it’s way into Adam’s narrative, the imagined tale his father Eli retells to Miriam as she recovers, of his parents fleeing Europe, meeting and falling in love in New York, and sending a son out into the world.
“So at opposite ends of Europe the parents had left their towns by night, scurrying across unfamiliar lands under cover of dusk and dawn, sleeping in barns and under hedges, sometimes helped and sometimes hunted by those whose blood and cast of face kept them safe in that time and place. And at last they’d come to the sea, thee ancestors, where they had used the end of their gold to take passage for America, and had woken one morning a few weeks later to see the Statue of Liberty on the horizon and a new life waiting for them at their feet. They found refuge, and began again.
But the boy, growing up, knew little of this tale, would piece it together later from other versions. Better, the parents thought, not to tell such stories, better the children and grandchildren should bear new names to walk new roads, although no-one, they thought, no-one of their blood should ever again imagine himself safe, imagine that his passport and his prosperity came with any guarantee that he would not some day be grateful to find himself able to escape the streets where he had always lived.”
The boy grows up, strikes out alone, hitchhikes to California and drifts between communes and communities that brought new meaning to the sense of freedom his parents had come to America to secure. Eli’s colourful adventures from 1960’s America to doting grandfather living an organic existence on the Cornwall coast, bring a worldly reflection to the very domestic, suburban life his son now inhabits, bubble-wrapping his children against any sign of danger.
There are so many other little things which I adore about this book – the echoes of Bodies of Light, Emma is a doctor whose father is not nice to her, who never “let her imagine herself adequate as doctor, daughter of human being”; the inner conflicts and gender stereotypes turned on their head by a working mother and a stay-at-home dad; the deathly descriptions of the angels of the cathedral; Miriam’s relentless, right-on politics; all those crystal clear moments on staircases, hovering in doorways in the dusk of a suburban night, at kitchen tables, hushed words spilling out onto pillowcases.
Footnote: I have just discovered that Sarah Moss’ 2011 book Night Waking draws on the same narratives in Bodies of Light, following the other sister, May, to the Scottish island where her story diverged from Ally’s. This book has just soared to the top of my To Be Read pile.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
The first Toni Morrison book I’ve read, I found Beloved tough, not just the content but the language. This was raw and unrelenting, so much so I found myself closing my eyes for moments, not able to even look at the words, never mind read them, as if Sethe’s pain was soaked up in the ink on the pages.
In the same way I drank up her moments of joy, those newly-wed days at Sweet Home:
“For years they saw each other in full daylight only on Sundays. The rest of the time they spoke or touched or ate in darkness. Predawn darkness and the afterlight of sunset. So looking at each other intently was a Sunday-morning pleasure and Halle examined her as though storing up what he saw in sunlight for the shadow he saw the rest of the week.”
No matter how much I read or how many films I watch, I am never ready for the human stories which are born out of horror and trauma – war, famine, slavery. Morrison tells it starkly, slaves bred like animals by their masters, raped, beaten, disgraced in ways that you couldn’t dare believe possible. That people bound in chains had strength of spirit to fall in love still amazes me. That Sethe and Halle’s children are born in love and for the most part allowed to live together as a family, it feels like a moment of hope but speaks to the power of the slave-owners who could build up or tear down the lives of others so swiftly.
The stories of escape, of lives being rebuilt and celebrated bring a wonderful sense of colour into Morrison’s dark tale. The characters who drift in and around the shadowy margins of 124 are fascinating but their stories are second to that of Sethe, Denver and Beloved. I have always struggled with narratives that draw on the supernatural or magical realism, for me real life is always enough, yet somehow that doesn’t really matter with Beloved. The moments which tested my tolerance of the supernatural couldn’t compare with the arresting, blunt realism of the violence both physical and psychological.
It took me a long time to read my first Toni Morrison, now I fear it will take me so long to recover that it will be another while before I can pick up another. But I will, because hers feel like stories which need to be told and need to be read.