You just discovered your children are mortal, how could you not want another baby, a back-up baby, an insurance against childlessness. You want a third chance, the magic occasion to get it all right. But you can’t get it right, darling. With every birth, a new death comes into being. With every love, a loss. There is no back up, no alternative, no chance to change whatever plot we are living.
My daughter Maddie was around 2 years old when we got a call from the daycare saying she’d broken out in hives after eating eggs for lunch. Before long we were at the allergist’s office holding her hands to keep her from scratching at the welts rising on her arms from the “prick tests” that revealed the bad news: not only is she highly allergic to eggs, but she is also very allergic to peanuts and most tree nuts. Other parents who have gone through this testing will understand how the world, and your parenting, changes afterwards: food–not just a necessity but also the center of so much of our family and social lives–becomes something difficult; shopping and outings and birthday parties and travel are all fraught. The consequences of one unsafe morsel could be unbearable–or not, as the one sure thing about allergies, you soon discover, is that they are unpredictable and not well understood. You know your child has to live in a world that is not risk-free; you know you all have to figure out how she can move safely through it without worrying too much, or asking too much of others. But how much is too much? When it’s your child, it can be awfully hard to settle that question, but you have to, and so you rebuild using new rules–always read labels; never assume; no epi-pen, no food.
Sarah Moss’s The Tidal Zone tells the story of a family whose experience is a limiting case for this kind of stress. One day, without warning (or maybe not), 16-year-old Miriam collapses and nearly dies, for no apparent reason. After a couple of weeks in the hospital, and many tests, the doctors conclude that it was probably (though not certainly) exercise-induced anaphylaxis–rare, inexplicable, and likely to reoccur, though how likely, or how soon, or with what severity, they really can’t say. “You do understand,” the doctor says to Miriam when she’s being discharged, “that because we don’t know what caused your anaphylaxis, we don’t know how you can avoid it.”
The novel is narrated by Miriam’s father Adam, a stay-at-home dad and part-time academic. He is wry, sarcastic, irritable, self-aware, loving, and desperately trying to navigate the newly uncertain terrain of his life, especially his relationship with his daughter, with at least a little grace. His interior monologues brilliantly capture his struggle to keep his overwhelming fear for Miriam’s safety from becoming debilitating for either of them. “I don’t want the new normal,” he thinks when they first bring Miriam home and his wife Emma, herself a doctor, urges him to relax:
I want the old one back, or if I can’t have that I want Mim on the monitors for the rest of her life or at least the rest of mine and she is not going away in three years she can live here with us where I can listen to her breathing and she can attend one of the five excellent universities within an hour’s journey, to which I will happily drive her, outside whose lecture theatres I will happily wait.
“You need to practice letting go,” Adam’s father tells him; “this is understandable but it won’t help either of you in the long run.” Adam knows this perfectly well, but it’s one thing to know something and another thing to feel its truth and act on it; the novel is about Adam’s learning to let go, not of his fear for Miriam, but in spite of it.
Adam tries to help himself (unforgivably, he sometimes thinks) by focusing on those whose traumas dwarf theirs: other families in the ward whose children will not come home again no matter how careful their parents promise to be; families destroyed in Auschwitz or in Yugoslavia; children bullied to death or drowned or without Miriam’s access to life-saving treatments. A historian by training, he works on putting things in perspective. “This would have been normal,” he remarks to Emma; “Everyone would have been used to it. You know. Adverse outcomes in pædiatric medicine.” The euphemism does not do its job: “It means dead people,” Miriam (wonderfully smart, combative, and brave) ruthlessly explains to her little sister Rose. “All I mean,” Adam persists,
is that the way things are for us now is the normal one, globally and historically. It’s everyone else who’s anomalous. Everyone who doesn’t think it could happen to them.
Emma cannot understand why this comforts him at all, but it does, “a little.” Miriam’s near-death experience initially made him feel disconnected from everyone around him, because their surface normalcy seemed unable to accommodate the drastic collapse of his family’s normal life. The comforting realization, for him, is how shallow that surface layer is for everyone–that they all have in common the enormous, unbearable fragility of everything they take for granted, just as he took for granted that his daughters’ bodies worked, and would keep working, ceaselessly to keep them alive.
What helps Adam most, though, is his work on a book about the restoration of Coventry Cathedral. The implicit parallels between its destruction and rebuilding and the destruction and reconstruction of Adam’s family are beautifully handled: the connections are never made explicit, never become heavy-handed, but simply grow in resonance as Moss interleaves Adam’s account of the work on the cathedral with his family story. By the end of The Tidal Zone I longed to see what Sir Basil Spence had built, encompassing both ruin and resurrection; the great tapestry designed by Graham Sutherland; and especially the windows of angels — “Leaping, leaning, jumping. Rising, writhing.” The new cathedral, Adam reflects, does not gloss over loss or pain, but that does not impede its message of hope:
It is not all right.
It is not all right, but there is beauty. We have ways of saying that it is not all right, that there is death and suffering and evil, and they are the same ways we have had for hundreds of years. Buildings. Glass. Weaving.
Against these rare soaring moments, and in contrast also to the tension and pathos of Adam’s anxiety for Miriam, Moss sets Adam’s wry commentary on being a stay-at-home dad and some terrific low-key satire of academic life. “Like all universities,” he says about the one where he teaches, “it is always building,” paving over the green spaces for car parks then digging up the car parks for new buildings so that “a swarm of angry drivers is permanently circling campus.” “I imagine there is some market research,” he goes on,
behind universities’ manifest view that what every bright eighteen-year-old craves is more overpriced coffee brought to them as they sit on more red leather sofas under more sepia images of Paris and New York. . . . You’d think that what The Youth of Today wants most of all is to recline in a soft red place and suck on the breasts of franchised multinational corporations, but only until you met the students. It is plain that the high-ups do not meet the students.
Add “posh places to use top-of-the-line exercise machines” to the list of what the “high-ups” assume The Youth of Today want and I think most North American academics would nod even more vigorously in rueful agreement. And we can all sympathize with Adam’s disappointment that the meeting for which he drags himself to campus does not, after all, serve coffee and biscuits. (Only meetings involving the “high-ups” get those, in my experience.)
I found The Tidal Zone gripping, moving, funny, and smart. It is written in a higher emotional register and with a faster pace than Moss’s Bodies of Light and Signs for Lost Children, which I reviewed for Numero Cinq; these historical novels are also very smart but were almost too refined and cerebral for my taste. I’ve kept thinking about them since I wrote that review, though, which doesn’t always happen with books I review, and The Tidal Zone confirms Moss’s place on my list of writers whose new work I will always seek out (and in fact I’ll be reviewing her latest, Ghost Wall, for its fall release date, which is one reason I took The Tidal Zone off the shelf now). She has two earlier novels I haven’t read yet, and also a memoir; I look forward to reading them as well.
The quotation you begin with reminds me of a funnier passage from Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, when Pearl Tull is explaining why she had a second baby, after discovering her first baby could get sick and worrying that he would die, and then she found out, with the second baby, that her heart was twice as imperiled.
Somehow that is one Anne Tyler novel I still haven’t read! But I can imagine her treating this with her signature balance of whimsy and poignancy.
I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts on “Ghost Wall”. I quite enjoyed it.