Wellcome Prize Shortlist, Pt. 2: The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss
This is Sarah Moss’s third consecutive appearance on the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist, after Bodies of Light in 2015 and Signs for Lost Children in 2016, a pair of linked novels about a female doctor in the nineteenth century. The Tidal Zone, on the other hand, is a contemporary story of how a sudden, strange illness shakes up one middle-class family.
It’s a clichéd image from television and films: new parents tiptoe into their baby’s room every night to make sure he or she is still breathing. But 15 years later, narrator Adam Goldschmidt starts doing the same thing for his teenage daughter, Miriam, after she collapses on her school’s sports field and stops breathing for a few minutes. Thanks to a teacher’s quick thinking, CPR and paramedics soon see her stable again, but for Adam and his wife Emma, herself a GP, this is like a biblical loss of innocence: for the first time they realize that something calamitous could happen to Miriam or their eight-year-old, Rose, at any moment. Adam feels himself part of a global web of suffering parents, including those whose children are bombed in the Middle East or shot by police in America. All he sees are potential Pietàs.
It comforts me to think that most parents in most of time and most of the world have lived with this fear as a matter of course. It comforts me to think that while I have little fellowship in my fear with the parents at the school gate, the massed ghosts of England and the majority of parents living in the world now are with me. Although it turns out, of course, once people have a reason to tell you, that more of the school-gate parents than you used to imagine live in the overlap between ordinary life and tragedy.
Miriam is a delightfully sarcastic kid, lefty and socially engaged. I love her banter with the rest of the family. She was never going to be a meek angel in a hospital bed. Still, she’s ready to resume regular life long before Adam and Emma are ready to let her out of their sight for more than an hour or two. Meanwhile, Adam has to keep things ticking over at home. A stay-at-home dad in Coventry, he teaches the occasional art history class at the local university and is slowly writing a book about Coventry Cathedral, which was bombed to destruction during World War II and later rebuilt. Occasional chapters about the cathedral’s history make the narrative arc even clearer: this is all about catastrophe and reconstruction. How does a family, or a city, bounce back from what looked like the end?
Eventually a diagnosis and suggested treatment arrive, but the mystery remains of what caused Miriam’s cardiac arrest in the first place. What combination of factors – what she’d eaten, how much she’d exercised, what was in the air – could account for a failure to keep breathing? And could there be a genetic aspect to this condition that could link back to Adam’s mother’s unexpected death when he was nine?
It’s from Adam’s early memories of his mother that the title comes: when he was a boy they explored the tidal zone at the Cornwall coast, looking for creatures in the rock pools. Just as tidal pools mark the boundary between the land and the sea, this novel probes the liminal space between survival and death. But it also recognizes that even in that crucial gap, daily activities continue: hanging up the laundry, emptying the dishwasher, fielding pleas for a cat, and carping about NHS and university bureaucracy. Moss writes so well about normal life – something I also noticed in Night Waking, the other novel of hers that I’ve read, which is narrated by a mother of young children (and a character who’s briefly mentioned here, as Adam’s friend) – she lends correct weight to the everyday without overlooking epiphanies and moments of timelessness.
I admired many things about the novel, particularly how easily Moss writes from a male viewpoint and the ways in which she reflects on the storytelling impulse. The extraordinary first chapter opens with “Once upon a time” and narrates the quotidian miracles of conception, pregnancy, birth and child development before making this personal, proceeding from “the girl” to “you” and finally to “I” in the second chapter. On several (perhaps one too many) occasions Moss repeats that fairytale opener to tell about Miriam’s medical journey or explain how Adam’s mother and American-born father met at a commune. This emphasizes the way we construct narratives around everything from our origins to our health.
A plan is a story about the future … a diagnosis is a story, brings a story’s promise of safe conduct through time and place to an anticipated ending.
I felt a bit too much time was spent on Adam’s father, and in the back of my mind was the niggling thought that this First World family is never facing true disaster because they have all kinds of safety nets in place; Moss’s is a very middle-class vision. I also think some readers could struggle with the slight aimlessness of the plot, though by the end you do get the sense that the characters are looking to the future in simple ways.
However, I don’t think those small complaints detract from the novel’s power. It’s a sobering but ultimately reassuring story with a simple message: we are all fragile, and we must appreciate life and health while we can.
You can’t go round not loving things because they’ll die.
May we forget. It is a pity that the things we learn in crisis are all to be found on fridge magnets and greetings cards: seize the day, savour the moment, tell your love—May we live long enough to despise the clichés again, may we heal enough to take for granted sky and water and light, because the state of blind gratitude for breath and blood is not a position of intelligence.
My gut feeling: Moss’s fiction shows true commitment to probing issues of health and medicine, and she’s an underrated author in general. Glancing back at the description of the books the Wellcome Prize panel is looking for (“At some point, medicine touches all our lives. … The subjects these books grapple with might include birth and beginnings, illness and loss, pain, memory, and identity”), I think this novel is a very strong contender indeed.
Clare’s at A Little Blog of Books
Eleanor’s at Elle Thinks
Eric’s at Lonesome Reader
Currently reading: I Contain Multitudes, Ed Yong’s (surprisingly?) enjoyable book about microbial life – I’m nearly halfway through and have taken it with me on our mini-holiday. Also The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee, a daunting 500+-page history of genetics, but I’ve loved this author’s work before (The Emperor of All Maladies).
I’m away in Hay-on-Wye through Thursday the 6th but will be back and responding to comments on Friday the 7th.