A Jealous Tide, by Anna MacDonald, is an elusory and richly evocative tale of people whose anchors to their small worlds prove inadequate for the shifting tides they face as life progresses. Narrated by an academic based in Melbourne, who is looking back on a winter spent in London, the prose is deeply embedded in her sense of place. Family, friends and other acquaintances are occasionally mentioned but mostly the story focuses on the narrator’s reaction to the stimuli of her surroundings – both immediate and awash with memory.
Opening in Melbourne, the first few chapters set the scene. She feels a ‘familiar restlessness’ so books a flight to Heathrow. There follow several months during which she prepares for her extended break. She shares significant events from her backstory. She walks to calm unease, often by a river or down to the sea. Water is a recurring theme, both the comfort it offers and the danger it brings.
Enmeshed within the academic’s personal story is that of an RAF Lieutenant who died in the winter of 1919 from injuries sustained rescuing a woman from the River Thames. He had survived the war. The narrator speculates that the woman was broken by grief due to the conflict.
The narrator sets out to explore how lives are affected by trauma, especially those saved from suicide attempts. Starting with studies into shipwrecks – those who drowned and those rescued – she becomes engrossed in finding out what effect this has on the remaining years before death.
“I wanted to know what happened to these men who had been made strangers to the known world by their time cast away.”
In London, the narrator bases herself in Hammersmith – as she has done on previous visits. She walks the streets and along the Thames. She indulges in mudlarking, taking items found back to her bedsit to clean and examine before returning many to the river. In her turbulent imagination she gives these fragments stories, augmented by the research she undertakes at the British Library and Wellcome Collection.
The imagined story of the soldier who died and the woman he rescued add tension to the present day narrative. The characters are imbued with unsettling emotions, similar to those sometimes felt by the narrator.
“struggling for breath in the tourniquet of surrounding streets”
“the woman draws her two arms across the empty cavity of her chest”
The impact on soldiers of being sent to war – the horrific actions and experiences they must accept there – segue with those who have survived shipwreck.
“These men have been adrift in an inhumane place. But their real misfortune, it seemed, was to return from there.”
The many ‘stories of the drowned’ she collects leave the narrator feeling unanchored – a ‘sense of loss’ and a ‘creeping calcification’. She copes by introducing strict routines to her days. She considers her life as that which has
“already passed: the places already passed through, the people already passed by”
“the present could be felt only as the varying weather on my shoulders, as a shifting breeze or the welcome warmth of the sun.”
Water was where man came from and, in the narrator’s research, to which many will return. The small items collected from the Thames mud are all that now remain of those who once passed through the city. She is drawn especially to a fragment that bears markings resembling a map – reminding her of the streets she walks repeatedly and the life lines on her palm.
There are references to literature and films (I had to use Google) along with mentions of places of historic interest in the Hammersmith area (I am familiar with the location so could enjoy these). Mostly though the prose is a lavish array of imagery – never cloying, at times disturbing due to the ever present riptide of death.
This is an impressive piece of writing that pulls together a story of displacement and the struggle to survive life’s challenges. An intense but deeply satisfying read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Splice.