Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 24, 2020

A Jealous Tide, by Anna MacDonald

This exquisite short novel was just what I needed after the chaotic experience of reading Sjon’s Codex 1962.  A Jealous Tide is Anna MacDonald’s debut novel, but it doesn’t read like one, it reads like the work of a writer at the top of her game after spending many years perfecting her craft.  She writes with a painterly eye, immersing the reader in the twin landscapes of urban Melbourne and riverside London, and the author’s wide reading and deep cultural knowledge enhance the book with the unexpected pleasure of allusions to intriguing books, artworks and music.

The unnamed narrator is not a flaneur, but she walks urban streetscapes with an observant eye.  Incurably restless, she walks the streets of South Yarra in Melbourne while she waits for her departure to London.  Despite the urgency to prepare for her journey, she feels an irresistible yearning to walk:

During the afternoons, as daylight yellowed and began to fade, I would give in, walk out, and close the door behind me.  Most days, I turned towards the river.  If there was enough light, from Herring Island jetty I moved upstream,  keeping pace with the incoming tide, walking past school playing fields where rowing crews levered racing boats from the water; where young boys outfitted as cadets qui-iick marched and dreamed the turf beneath their feet to desert, reimagining the far bank as a foreign shore, and the bagpipe band blew ‘Scotland the Brave’ into the creeping dark.  Often, I passed fishermen setting up on the low bank before MacRobertson Bridge.  As I headed out, they’d be unfolding their campstools along the edge of the river. It became a habit of mine to slow here, and watch, as one man after another secured bait to a hook, looked back over his shoulder before casting, waited for the metallic fizz of the line as it shot out from the land, across the water, and then paused, listening for the plop and bubble-rush of the sinking lure before settling onto his stool to wait.

On those days, I would walk far enough to leave the  sounds of traffic and after-school games behind me, into the steep wooded banks of Hawthorn and Abbotsford, where currawongs  cried in the dying light. Then, when evening had laid its mourning ribbons over the river and house lights began to pierce the darkening hills, I would turn and head for home.  Often as I walked back along the high bank, I could hear the rhythmic slap of a lone oarsman keeping time in the water below me. (p.3)

Yes, I knew by page three that I was going to love this book.  (In the beginning, The Spouse and I lived in two houses, alternating his and mine, and his was in Hawthorn, overlooking this very river.)

The narrator’s research project revolves around the imagery of water in the novels and essays of Virginia Woolf, but in London, it becomes something else.  Walking beside the Thames along the Hammersmith Bridge, she stumbles on a plaque, which reads:

Lieutenant Charles Campbell Wood R.A.F. of Bloemfontein South Africa dived from this spot into the Thames at midnight, 27 December 1919 and saved a woman’s life.  He died from the injuries received during the rescue.

She begins to spend her days in the British Library researching deaths by drowning, suicides, and survivors of shipwrecks at sea, and gradually her obsession takes her to a more dangerous alienation from reality.  The first person narration interweaves with the third person omniscient as the stories of the rescuer and the rescued absorb the narrator’s thoughts. The reader begins to fear for her with the same sense of looming tragedy as for Lieutenant Wood and the woman, who like Virginia Woolf is to weight her pockets with stones.

The evocation of women waiting in terror for news of their loved ones in World War 1 is vivid.  The woman who would unwittingly cost Lieutenant Wood his life dreads the reluctant messenger—that too-young boy thinking only of taking off, waiting to flee as soon as he has delivered yet another telegram to a devastated recipient:

…most of the day and night, she lets her eyes rest, unseeing, on the grate.  The woman wills her mind not to wander.  She makes of it a dead weight, which anchors her to that room with its fireside chair.

The woman makes herself dull.  She lets the flames blunt the impetus toward thought.  By a violent act of will she refuses to allow herself to look either forward or back until it becomes a habit to leave her mind blank, to give all her attention to the tending of the fire, the boiling of the kettle, the warming of the pot.  (p.98)

As we wonder whether the woman valued the life restored to her, we wonder too about what kind of life her rescuer might have had, had he survived his heroic act.  We witness with a sense of dread his fractured mind target his unsuspecting fellow boarders in the sitting room:

And all the while the long fingers of the leafless planes creep further and further into the room.  They part the flames in the fireplace, send sparks like rapid fire up the chimney and emerge supple and unscathed, preparing to count off the ghosts, the reflected room’s inhabitants, one by one by one.  Those fingertips run through the lieutenant’s hair, send a shudder down his upright spine.  They hold the curtains back on either side, force the unveiled window wide.  Then they move around the reflected room, heartless as a senior officer pointing to a map.  Giving instructions to his company to target the already weakened positions here, here, here.  And here.  (p.115)

I can’t read that passage without a feeling of renewed horror at the damage done to human minds by warfare.

This novel is spell-binding. I can’t put it better than the blurb:

In this mesmerising début novel, Anna MacDonald finds a language of perpetual motion for an almost static experience of interior life. Lyrical, lilting, and melodious, her gentle words rise into rhythms that surge forth, then break and recede, leaving treasures in their wake. Hers is the poetry of alienation embodied: corporeal and sensory, spatial and recursive, making magic from a tilt of the head, a turn of the gaze, a stride, a halt, an interplay of gesture and orientation. In her dizzying proliferation of spirals and orbits, trajectories and bearings, her every sentence is a search for traction on a world that bewilders anew with every daily revolution.

A Jealous Tide is a clear candidate for my annual Best Books of the Year.

Author: Anna Macdonald
Title: A Jealous Tide
Publisher: Splice, UK, 2020
ISBN: 9781916173071, hbk.,194 pages
Review copy courtesy of Splice

Available at Fishpond: A Jealous Tide, direct from Splice and the usual online sources.  (According to the press release, the paperback is due for release in 2021 but it also gives the hardback release date as October 2020 when the Book Depository and others say it was published back in July, so who knows?  Publishing is a bit disrupted at the moment, and so are local supplies of books published overseas.  Do not be deterred, make an effort to get  a copy of this book, and in Australia, start your enquiry at the Paperback Bookshop.)

Image Source: London Remembers: https://www.londonremembers.com/memorials/lieutenant-charles-campbell-wood

 


Responses

  1. Oh this sounds beautiful, Lisa. I have a lump in my throat after reading the piece you have here from page 115. The writing is so poetic. And the final ‘And here’, standing alone like that gives a real thump to the chest.

    Like

    • As a writer, Karenlee, you would love every word of this. In fact, I thought of you when I was writing the review because there were so many arresting words I wanted to share, and I considered choosing briefer excerpts as you do in your reviews, but in the end I couldn’t bear to do it.
      But here are a couple…
      Collecting stones at the beach are “stones made meek by the tidal friction of time”. “A collection of broken bricks and dented copper piping held together the memory of the building they had once been.”
      I just kept pausing to savour examples like this…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Lisa, sounds like a good read. I am always drawn to books where there is a Melbourne setting.

    Like

    • Me too. It’s so wonderful to be able to imagine exactly where things are happening.

      Like

  3. This sounds very compelling – thanks to you, I’ve expanded my Australian writing horizon a little bit. Will have to try and see how and when it is available over here (and at not too massive a price).

    Like

    • Marina, this will make you want to save up and come to Melbourne! (Where I promise to take you to lunch and show you the sights/)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Very evocative quotes Lisa, they immediately create that sense of mind disturbing loss.

    Like

    • Yes, even the telegram boy, it makes you wonder about that small army and how they coped with the trauma.

      Like

  5. Sounds brilliant! I enjoyed this review and your extracts.

    Like

    • I’m hoping it will persuade you to make a visit to Melbourne once those pecky borders are open…

      Liked by 1 person

      • You can count on it. My sister will be moving back to Melbourne from Singapore in April next year and I’ve promised the big kids a trip down once all is well to spend time with their grandfather (my dad). I will certainly be letting you know once all is organised!

        Like

  6. This has my name written all over it! I am an obsessive walker! I have lived in Melbourne! I have lived in London, a short stroll from Hammersmith Bridge, and wandered by the Thames every single day for almost 21 years! Thanks for such a great review, Lisa. However I do feel my TBR is becoming unmanageable and it’s largely your fault 😂

    Like

    • O ye Pot calling the Kettle black!
      How many books are on my TBR because of you? Everything Irish for a start…

      Like

  7. Dear Lisa

    Thanks for your very sensitive review of what sounds like a remarkable first book. I have added it to my “must buy” list. Keep up your fine reviews and don’t be disheartened by the odd Islandic Saga that fails to connect!

    Chris

    Like

    • Now that’s a thought… #musing: maybe if I’d finished reading
      Richard Fidler’s Sagaland I might have fared better. Instead of recycling Codex, maybe I should hang on to it until after I’ve read that.

      Like


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