Come the Tide is a sun-soaked, water-drenched, variegated collection of thirteen short stories that explores the ambiguous psychic implications of the now-you-see-it/now-you-don’t liminal terrain where dry land meets restless water. Ancient myths haunt these tales of oceans and islands, lakes and swimming pools, while bodies of water of all kinds – with their dangers and temptations, promises and secrets – weigh heavily on human protagonists drowning in uncertainty, insecurity and betrayal.
It is rare for a book’s title to be so exactly appropriate to what’s within. The thematic unity of these stories is rarer still, for they are all concerned in one way or another with Nature’s rising tide – usually, a rising tide of water, but oftentimes a wind-borne current of dead leaves or a surging mass of semi-sentient vegetation. Nature is a menace and a mystery in these stories, capable of abrupt metamorphoses that signify more than individuals can articulate, but which suggest an alarming eagerness for a rapturous swoon into self-destruction.
Author Sam Reese is from Aotearoa/New Zealand, a nation of islands amid the vast southern ocean, so I presume his preoccupation with the delicate balance of elements, the microscopic and the macroscopic, and the ever-present threat of inundation is not entirely coincidental. However, his stories of sunlight and storm, forest and desert also take in such places as Tangier and Sydney, Sri Lanka and Florence. Many of his characters are travellers in a foreign land who are obliged to confront the unexpected and uncanny in each other, in friends and lovers, in Nature itself:
I’ve started dreaming of cities overgrown with green… Skyscrapers swallowed by ivy – monstrous monstera suffocating long-abandoned rooms, craning their necks through broken windows towards the sun … The wind skirts up beneath the floorboards, the blue-grey paint peeling like leaves from cracks on my bedroom wall, and something dark is growing beneath the bathtub, behind the sink, always just out of reach.
The ecological overdrive in stories such as ‘Overgrown,’ where vegetation infiltrates the built environment, taking it over and transforming it, is like something out of Malcolm Devlin’s You Will Grow Into Them. Reese, however, takes overt inspiration from classical mythology, with its permeable frontiers between human, animal and vegetable. For instance, in ‘Circe in Furs,’ mythology and Nature join forces to convert people into strange beasts who merge before our eyes into forests dark and deep.
In stories like ‘Atlantis,’ ‘everything is on the verge of being swallowed by nature,’ and ancient mythical cities embody grieving characters’ quests for certainty and peace. In ‘Which Way to Ithaca?’, for example, a flimsy film set of classical columns made from plywood and string frustrates a young woman’s longing to recapture a mythical moment from her own past. The people in Reese’s stories invariably have something inside themselves they wish to protect or conceal; sometimes they need to revisit or reinvent that something in the external world. As one of them explains in ‘Circe in Furs’:
Everybody has a private space somewhere inside of themselves. For some people, it’s a dainty, pretty plot, properly fenced in. For others, it’s a forest – a wide-rambling, untamed soul. Yet others have bonsai spirits; full of giant dreams but trimmed to fit a smaller space … Whatever your inner space is like … make sure you tend to it, fill it with life.
Yet, always and everywhere, there is remorseless erosion – ‘the water lapping at the base of cliffs, lapping at the base of us all.’ As this line suggests, erosion is more than simply a physical process. It is also a condition of existence and a harbinger of extinction. This world is ‘A living wall of water, an endless, aching tide’ which drowns everything in its path. Come the Tide presents water as friend and foe, life and death. Earthquake and tsunami register abrupt seismic shifts in couples’ relationships, while dreams of drowning, and visions of towns submerged in depthless lakes, thrust readers into the precarity of human existence.
Many of the women in Come the Tide know more than they’re prepared to tell, especially when they possess secret knowledge and artistic gifts. They can exercise a strange power over others – particularly men. And women frequently exercise control over the image itself: in photographs, for example, that reveal more than they show, or the broken fresco in ‘Counterfeiting,’ which conveys a mystery, a secret from the past, via the frank gaze of figures who stare outwards at the spectator, at the reader: ‘An image is a trap you get caught inside. No matter how I tried, I was never going to dream my way back.’
There are many memorable images in Come the Tide, among them hotel rooms imagined as beneath the sea, with crabs scuttling across the carpet (‘Atlantis’), or the recurrent image of a dive – be it a swimmer plunging athletically into the water or the terrible slow-motion plummet of a car off a cliff. ‘Lake Country’ has many such images and is perhaps the most unsettling story in the collection. It is set in a converted pump house at the end of a pier over a bottomless artificial lake. Vast turbines – fifty years old and never used – stand in silence beneath the building, connected to a labyrinth of tunnels and pipework that stretches through the mountainous forest to an enormous dam. Awful secrets are unearthed by story’s end.
Occasionally, Reese’s writing slips into self-parody. In ‘Under the Wave’, for example, ‘It reminded me of being in Sri Lanka again, in the forest, just after the rain had passed’ brought to mind Phil’s chat-up line in Groundhog Day: ‘I think of Rome, the way the sun hits the buildings in the afternoons.’ In addition, there is very little dialogue in these stories, and none of it is signalled with quotation marks. This stylistic choice is occasionally confusing and a little bothersome, as it is not always clear who is speaking. It also has a distancing effect, as if there were a glass wall between reader and narrator, rather like the glass window in an aquarium that separates one character from a silently judging octopus.
However, admirers of the short story will savour Come the Tide’s blend of the numinous and the normal. Like many of its characters, I could feel the sand between my toes, the glare of the sun in my eyes, and the pain of broken love. Come the Tide shows the world as an island in space, less hospitable and more unpredictable than we often like to think. The book’s aquatic settings emphasize the immensity of the sky at night and the power of the wind and the rain, so that the act of reading becomes an unusually visceral and enlarging experience. Readers will need to take a deep breath before they dive in.
Platypus Press | ISBN 9781913007003 (pbk)