A review of Tides by Sara Freeman
Slipping quietly into the new year comes Tides, the carefully crafted, deeply felt debut novel by Canadian-British author Sara Freeman. With its sparse mode of expression, striking imagery and experimental structure, it is a book that tries to be many things at once – but, when all that is stripped away, there remains at its core a fierce, raw story, a moving meditation on grief and love.
In her late thirties, Mara has unmoored herself from life following the trauma of a stillbirth. Unable to bear the presence of her husband or to continue living in the same building as her brother and sister-in-law, who have a new baby, she turns off her phone and sets out on a bus, disembarking in Rome, a small American seaside town. As the summer begins to fold, Mara spends nights on the beach in a drunken stupor, sleeping occasionally in a hostel dormitory with Spanish-speaking seasonal labourers, drowning slowly in the pain of her bereavement.
The novel progresses slowly, in fragments, each page merely a paragraph or two in length. Freeman’s prose is spartan, clipped in places, and she consistently refuses to give too much away – even Mara’s name isn’t revealed until we are a good way into the story. In the swirling haze of grief that surrounds her, other elements of Mara’s past only gradually come into focus: the shadowy beginnings of her marriage to Lucien, her relationship with her father, the extreme love she continues to feel for her brother. Slowly, very slowly, we come to see that the trauma of losing her baby is underlined by another – somewhat disturbing –dispossession, which has come from growing up and being forced to relinquish the intimacy and sense of ownership she experienced with her sibling.
Tides is very much a novel about possession: self-possession, a mask that Mara, and indeed others, often let slip; and the ultimately impossible desire to possess another fully. As winter sets in, Mara stumbles into a job in a local wine shop whose owner, Simon, has his own domestic issues to contend with. Silently, he allows Mara to sleep in the storeroom above the shop, where each day she seeks to eliminate all traces of her having been there. The relationship that develops between the two of them is inevitable, but doomed, of course – in a book such as this, a happy ending seems unlikely from the start. At first, Simon becomes an emotional shelter for Mara to flee to: he asks for little, is ‘easy, a sail aloft on a perfect windswept day’. But, with the sudden reappearance of his wife and daughter, he too finds himself trapped, ‘a hapless tourist in the land of feeling’. As cracks form, the novel takes on a slightly harder tone: Simon now seems written off as something of a weak character, with only Mara allowed to plumb the true depths of emotion.
Though Tides veritably seethes with pain and anger and bewildered grief, it is all tamped down, held firmly below the surface. Freeman has taken care to keep her prose on an exceptionally tight leash, a stripping-back that is generally effective, hinting powerfully at what lurks beneath. At times, however, the use of sharp imagery – much of it wind- or water-based – can become a little relentless, keeping us frustratingly distant from Mara, as though we are looking at her through a clouded pane. ‘Not feeling is a feeling too,’ writes Freeman, and though the fragmented structure and reticent tone are doubtless there to help us appreciate Mara’s numbness, a novel needs to give as well as taking away.
While we may be frustrated in our wish to get to know Mara, there is no doubt that Freeman is a considered writer, a sharp observer both of human interaction and how people can be shaped by place. The continual presence of the tides and slow turning of the seasons seem gradually to settle Mara, binding her once again to the world in which she must continue to live. By the end of the novel, we are allowed to believe – hope, even – that Rome has been merely a phase, a brief succumbing to a wave of grief from which she can now be freed. But then, an earlier line has hinted at some older, darker urge: ‘She has always wanted this: to slip beneath the surface, to dispossess herself’. Though her running away was doubtless a direct reaction to trauma, the pieces of Mara’s life we have been allowed to slot together build a blurry picture of an existence precariously balanced.
Within the narrow world of the novel, Tides raises more questions than it answers, yet its fractured structure and light linguistic footprint give it a uniquely haunting quality. Concerned with the discrepancy between surface appearances and what lies beneath, it encourages us to examine the murkier depths of our emotions, and confronts us with the perhaps painful truth that, ultimately, we can only ever know ourselves.
Tides by Sara Freeman is published by Granta. Many thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for so kindly providing a digital review copy.