Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 30, 2018

Tidetown, by Robert Power

Robert Powers first presence on this blog came with Karenlee Thompson’s guest review of his award-winning short story collection Meatloaf in Manhattan (Transit Lounge, 2014) and it’s interesting to see now that Karenlee identified his interest in secretive behaviour in that collection.

Because secretive behaviour is a major preoccupation in Power’s third novel, Tidetown. The reader always knows more about the inner lives of the characters than the characters know about each other. Which, given their quirky behaviours, makes for a most engaging novel.  The book is a sequel to In Search of the Blue Tiger (Transit Lounge, 2012) but although many of the characters first made an appearance in that novel, (which I haven’t read) it isn’t necessary to have read the first in the series.  The novel makes perfect sense on its own.

The Tidetown of the novel is a fictional provincial town, sited somewhere in the brisk climate of the northern hemisphere.  The story takes place in an indeterminate time though it feels like the 19th century because of cues like sailing ships; descriptions of clothing (e.g. breeches); travel by carriage, cart and the occasional train; and Anglo-colonial cookery such as oxtail soup.  The evil of slavery, abolished in the UK in 1833 and in France in 1848, but not until 1865 in the US, is another clue to the time frame of the novel.

Although elsewhere there is an uprising against a Sultan’s slavers, there are, however, no slaves in Tidetown except for the shipwrecked survivor Zakora.  But there is an autocratic ruler called Mayor Bruin, and unbeknown to him, his housekeeper Mrs M is the daughter of a former convict.  Mayor Bruin also doesn’t know that his deputy mayor Joshua Barnum is not as dopey as he pretends to be, and he certainly isn’t aware of his daughter Angelica’s extreme duplicity when it comes to getting what she wants.

Angelica, for whom the adjective quirky is wholly inadequate, is a manipulating schemer who has developed an obsession with the Fishcutter twins.  These adolescent girls, Carp and Perch, are in prison for murdering their father.  She corresponds with them (despite their lack of enthusiasm for her friendship) and she inveigles their early release using her father’s weakness for pleasing her.

Angelica thinks hard, screwing up her face in concentration.  She knows her father well, and how she can sway him.  He is at his most vulnerable, his most pliable, when she is in despair. She knows he can hardly bear his only daughter’s grief.  For him, it’s as if he is watching her crying for her dead mother all over again.  She looks around her room, seeking a plan, a solution.  (p.79)

Her solution is diabolical.

Before the novel begins, Power alerts his readers to its allegorical aspects with a quotation from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress:

It is always hard to see the purpose in wilderness wanderings until after they are over.’

And yes, this is a novel that cleverly obscures its trajectory for more than half the book without losing the reader’s rapt engagement.  The young Oscar Flowers, exiled to service on a sailing ship because of his unwitting role in the Fishcutter murder, has been away from his loving foster-mother Mrs April for five years or so.  Like all the characters who work for others, Oscar is hardworking, enterprising and quick to learn what pleases, and when his mentor Aimu returns to his birthplace (a land where they speak Arabic), Oscar is accepted as one of the family.  And thus he joins the rebels who are fighting the scourge of slavery…

A different scourge assails Tidetown: a plague, of Biblical proportions.  Characters wrestle with the temptations of survival versus a humane response—and for some, evil triumphs.  On the nearby Island of Good Hope the monks are confronted both by children orphaned by the plague and refugees from slavery, while Mayor Bruin sees his power and prestige crumple in the mayhem.  Amidst all this is the manic figure of Perch and her unshakeable belief in her own messianic power.

Power is a fine storyteller and Tidetown is a rollicking tale, but true to the allegorical aspects of the novel, the book also considers questions of good and evil, and whether these qualities are innate or formed by experience.  Life is cheap in the world of this novel and characters have to make the most of the time they’ve got.  Judge Omega, travelling to Tidetown with the life-saving vaccine, tackles the existential question with the Colonel and the hussars protecting them from robbery, arguing that

‘There are relatively few ways to do good. But there are countless ways to do evil, which can therefore have a much greater impact on our lives. So preventing evil is more important than promoting good in formulating moral rules and in actual conduct. (p.259)

And from his experience in judging people brought before his court, he has come to the conclusion that no person is truly evil, that only acts may be properly considered evil. It is the act, not the person, we are describing. furthermore, he thinks that:

A wicked thought can lead to a good action. Equally well, an evil action can be turned to good. (p.264)

Alas for the judge he is able only too easily to identify evil when it comes to him, and that his options are not what he thought they might be.  (The author has a fine talent for the macabre).

I’ll leave the final words to Brother Moses, chatting with Oscar as they return to the monastery on a cart loaded with provisions:

‘Well, then, says Brother Moses, some little while later, ‘what have travels through time and space taught you?’

He looks my way, with that expression of his that is always seeking insight, truth, meaning.  I remember the advice he once gave me to speak to anyone, everyone, because if you do not you’ll never know what they might have to say.  He says no more, leaves me to think, lets silence sit in the air. So many thoughts, such a jumble of images, comes to my mind. They come and then flicker and fade. Seascapes; warscapes; snippets of conversation: from Aimu, from Abdul-Latif, from Enrico and Carmel; sensations and feelings and emotions that are beyond words yet equally powerful. I try to bring it all to mind, to form some meaning.

‘That wherever I go, I take myself with me?’ I all but ask myself in answer. (p311-312)

I wonder if there might yet be a further sequel…

Author: Robert Power
Title: Tidetown
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2015
ISBN: 9781921924910
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Transit Lounge (also available in digital formats)


Responses

  1. I had to look Robert Power up – Dublin born, British raised, Australian resident. I need to know the author’s background to judge the book. Yet many, perhaps the majority of readers, don’t. I’m probably the one out of step (hard as that is to digest).

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    • Funny you should say this tonight, I’ve just been discussing identity politics with a friend. I hope you don’t make assumptions about the author’s values, attitudes and behaviours based on their identity…

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      • What I’m judging, initially anyway, is their trustworthiness to write about a particular location or people. I think I would infer their values from what they write. So, for instance, tonight I’m writing a review of Kate Chopin who I judge is well qualified to write about upper middle class French speaking people from New Orleans, And whose values are profoundly racist.

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        • But how can you assume trustworthiness or otherwise based on where a person has lived? There were middle class white people in South Africa e.g. Ruth First and Joe Slovo who worked passionately to overturn apartheid, Ruth Slovo losing her life for it. I learned today that there were middle class white men in Australia’s first federal parliament who spoke up in the Franchise debate against excluding Aborigines from the vote on the grounds that it was already bad enough that their land had been taken from them, back in 1901. Are you going to start judging my trustworthiness as a reviewer based on where you think I’ve lived and haven’t lived??

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          • I meant I would trust you to tell me about Melbourne (or about books!). If you wrote a novel set in Perth, or with a Male Chinese protagonist I would have to ask, What reliance can I place on your descriptions.

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