Adam is a full-time carer for his two daughters, his overworked GP wife and the small house they inhabit. With a PhD well past its use-by date, he delivers the occasional lecture at the university and has recently been commissioned to write the text for an audio guide to Coventry Cathedral, famously rebuilt around the ruins of the mediaeval church bombed in World War II. When fifteen-year-old Miriam collapses at school, stops breathing and suffers a cardiac arrest, his family similarly is put through a gruelling process of near-destruction and restoration.
What do people mean when, hearing of some dreadful disaster, they say they can’t imagine what it must be like? As in the opening quote, and elsewhere in the novel, Adam refuses to take this at face value, while conceding that it’s perfectly understandable for others to want to look away. After all, he’s done it himself. Putting his family’s trauma in historical and global context, he has to conclude it’s not unusual to be confronted so abruptly by mortality, but that doesn’t make it any easier to bear.
Reluctant to face an accusation of imaginative failure, we empathise with Adam. His devotion to his domestic duties is admirable, and he has two clever and apparently well-adjusted daughters to show for it. But, with his inability to take time out to attend a Shakespeare matinee in nearby Stratford, and his long hours at the stove, is his caring also a kind of control? Is it perhaps a defence against something else so that, when hit by a crisis, it’s especially hard to adjust?
I was interested in Adam’s own failures of imagination, particularly in relation to Miriam. In the children’s high dependency unit, she’s in the awkward position of being severely at risk yet perfectly healthy, and on the borderline between child and adult. While Adam is extremely patient with her frustration and boredom, he does not connect with the terror that must lie underneath. There is no discussion of her own fears of death until he discovers her crying in the night sometime after her discharge, and even then he lets it drift off into a pseudo-intellectual debate about the differential impacts of burial and burning on the environment.
In a similar way, the medical staff do not fully imagine the distress of the children in their care. This task seems to have been unconsciously delegated to the parents who are encouraged to stay with their children 24/7, while receiving zero support themselves. Passively awaiting a diagnosis, the parents are significantly de-skilled not only through their inability to prevent their children’s suffering but also by the hospital system itself. When a doctor unexpectedly suggests discharging Miriam on a Sunday afternoon, Adam is terrified at the prospect of taking back responsibility for his child. It cannot be that the professionals are incapable of imagining their charges’ feelings, and it’s also unlikely that they do not want to, but rather that it would be impossible for them to do their jobs if they did. A social system has evolved as a defence against the anxieties of the work.
I see the main theme of The Tidal Zone therefore as being about the complexities, contradictions and limitations of compassion and caring in all its forms. It’s also a novel full of anger about public services in 21st-century Britain and, despite or because of the heavy subject matter, it’s also very funny, with beautiful writing and engaging descriptions. After enjoying Signs for Lost Children, I was pleased to read Sarah Moss’s follow-up. Thanks to Granta books for providing a copy.
The Second World War is over and nineteen-year-old twins, Lenny and Miriam, along with their compatriots, are looking to the future. But their trajectories are interrupted when they are diagnosed with tuberculosis and banished from the East End of London to an isolated sanitorium in Kent. Will the somewhat snobbish community accept the lower class arrivals foisted on them by the burgeoning NHS? Will the twins lose their vitality to the passivity of patient role? Will any of the “dark circle” cling on long enough to receive the wonder-drug that will not cure this dreadful disease but contribute towards its eventual eradication from the Western world?
Linda Grant has clearly had fun with her depiction of Britain at a time of great social change, encompassing not just the experiment in socialised healthcare, but the early days of television and the importation of rock ‘n’ roll, strange blue trousers and cunnilingus from the USA. Anti-Semitism is rife, but the old class boundaries are breaking down, and there’s also a reminder that it wasn’t only Jews who were incarcerated by the Nazis. Despite the efforts of the medical director, even the closed environment of the hospital is not immune. Later, the survivors of the regime, like those of the concentration camps, are estranged from their compatriots by dint of traumatic experiences it’s impossible to share.
I must emphasise that, when I confess I found this novel uneven, the version I received from the publishers, Virago, was an uncorrected proof. It’s a fascinating social history, with an insight into a disease and its treatment still feared by older generations when I was a child (and I have a vague memory of playing in the ruins of former sanitorium at the edge of our town), but with characters sometimes forced to inform the reader instead of communing with each other, and, like the day-to-day life of the patients, some significant longueurs. I also thought it a little unfocused with a sequence of events but not a great deal of plot. As for the writing itself, beautifully witty descriptions (but unfortunately I can’t quote because I don’t have the finished version) rub shoulders with pages that read as if not even the author has bothered to reread them (my copy is described as “bound from the author’s manuscript”).
An Orange Prize winner and Man Booker shortlisted author, Linda Grant has many fans eager to read her seventh novel. I hope it has gone through a rigorous edit before reaching their hands.