Uncertainty is a large part of the human experience, which is why sometimes the soothing certainties of the natural world can offer the reassurance that feels necessary to keep moving forward. According to the National Ocean Service, “Tides are one of the most reliable phenomena in the world. As the sun rises in the east and the stars come out at night, we are confident that the ocean waters will regularly rise and fall along our shores.” Tides are directly linked to lunar and solar gravity, and the moon has long been associated with women and their menstrual cycles.
It’s fitting, then, that Sara Freeman chose tides as the central theme in her debut novel of the same name. In a book that surges and swells and sometimes dissipates, a 37-year-old woman named Mara seeks solace in a seaside town after giving birth to a stillborn child. The fragmented narrative reflects the littered and eroded interiority of a woman in duress, numbed and dulled by what she’s been through. While residing in this new place, Mara can’t focus on reading, distracted by an ocean of floating thoughts.
At the local library, she’s drawn to something more superficial, “a book of photographs taken from very high up. Just the kind her brother would make fun of: sentimental, opium for the idiots. Pink lakes and bright shantytowns, a strip mall almost majestic under a full moon. She can look at them for many hours without growing bored. She likes how everything is made both legible and strange by distance, by such a remove.” A similar distance saturates the surface layer of this novel, but “Tides” is concerned with what is intentionally hidden, flickering or muddied, waiting to be excavated. Mara recalls a performance art piece she once saw in New York in which a woman opens her mouth and “pulls at something from within: cotton wool, batting, the stuffing of an armchair. It is uncanny, this endless recovery, this intestinal unfurling; there is so much more matter in there than seems possible, so much more space in the tiny cavity.”
The same is true for Mara: so many memories and moments are contained inside of her. We learn that back home, she left a husband, and a brother and sister-in-law who had recently welcomed a healthy baby. She is tethered to her brother in perhaps an unhealthy way. But she has cut off communication with all of them, leaving her cell phone disconnected and not telling them where she is. She starts to wear other people’s clothes, including a hoodie a pregnant addict leaves on the street with “the inside of the sweater splayed out, pockmarked, pilled,” and a fleece that belonged to the dead son of a woman she befriends and stays with. What does a person wear when their life no longer fits? Freeman pays attention to the estrangement one can feel from their own body and experiences, and how bizarre it can be to find an undistorted reflection in the mirror. Externally Mara can look the same, but internally she sees herself as “a bay stripped bare by the tides, all the scum and rocks and dented plastic bottles on hideous display.”
As the story unfolds in short sections sometimes only a sentence long (calling to mind Jenny Offill’s “Dept. of Speculation” and “Weather”) what’s most hypnotic is what’s revealed beneath the waves of language: the impossibility of leaving one’s past behind. As Mara comes to realize, “nothing is ever over; you can never really unknow; there is no such thing as recovery, no such luxury as forgetting.” Just as the tides are something we can count on, our life events are imprinted inside of us, fossilized and imperfect shells swirling with their own kind of broken beauty.
Without any concrete plans, Mara finds a job at a local wine shop, working for Simon, a married man going through a difficult time in his marriage. Their shared loneliness eventually leads to an intense intoxication, reminding Mara of how desire can seep through the cracks, but also be a paltry and frayed Band-Aid on a deep wound. Still: their time together leads to something she desperately wants.
There are unsettling and disturbing moments in the novel that aren’t expanded on and given the space to unfold, but perhaps that’s Freeman’s point: the tides shift. All that is revealed can be obscured again. “If you can’t let go of anything, let go of everything. She read this once somewhere.” Yet that concealment won’t last forever. Eventually the past will surface, washing ashore in broad daylight. “She has always wanted this: to slip beneath the surface, to dispossess herself,” Mara thinks in the beginning of the book. In doing so, she also finds herself.
Grove, 256 pages, $26
Michele Filgate is a writer and the editor of “What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About.”