Slack-Tide (Jonathan Cape, £12.99)
Slack-Tide (Jonathan Cape, £12.99)
Four years after the loss of a child broke her marriage, London-based writer Elizabeth meets Robert, a generous and charming American architect. A passionate but controlling relationship unfolds over the period of a few months and by the midsummer, when the affair is over, Elizabeth feels as though she’s had the roof torn from over her. The Zambia-born, London-based writer’s third novel is as brief and stylish as the affair it depicts.
Were you familiar with seafaring before writing Slack-Tide and why is the metaphor a good one for telling the story of the love affair between your two central characters?
I’m happier in the sea than on dry land, but I’m a swimmer not a sailor. Newborn, I took my first sea swim at Carthage. Before I was two, my family came to the UK via West Africa, and settled briefly on the Cornish coast. My childhood reading was shot through with novels about long sea voyages, and I’ve spent much of my life at one shoreline or another. I’m told the Dymotts were Dorset seafarers once, though I’ve inherited nothing of their skill: I wouldn’t know how to handle a boat. For now, I’m landlocked October to July, earning a living, but I dream of making my home by the water. I dream, too, of sailing through Greece, stopping off at one island, then another, and dropping anchor far out and diving in. I’ve a particular fantasy about coming into a tiny Mediterranean harbour at night, disembarking to get some food, then sleeping it off and sailing on at dawn. Never done it, probably never will, but it’s nice to daydream.
The seafaring metaphor lends itself to a contemporary love story in so many ways. Like the crew of an oceangoing boat, a couple embarking on a love affair must take a leap of faith. They are going into the unknown. They may be met by tempests, or instead, might get lucky, finding fair winds and calm seas. It’s no surprise that the modern day insurance market has its origins in marine finance. Investing in an Elizabethan trading ship meant having to be prepared to see your money literally sink. The risks in love and seafaring are different, but equally enormous. Lose your ship, you lose your fortune, or, if you’re sailing it yourself, your life. In the best case scenario, untold riches will be yours. The stakes in love are somewhat higher, I’d say: daring to love a person wholly means heartbreak or happiness. Lovers and sailors must, it seems to me, be either very brave, or very foolhardy, to do the things they do.
Controlling and coercive behaviour in an intimate family relationship became an offence in 2015. Is Robert guilty of such an offence and if so, why doesn’t Elizabeth leave him?
Robert’s behaviour is controlling and claustrophobic, but doesn’t come close to an offence under section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015. For him to be guilty, the prosecution would have had to establish that Elizabeth had suffered serious alarm or distress which had a substantial adverse effect on her day-to-day activities, or to have been in fear of physical violence. Neither of those apply. In any case, she does leave him, eventually.
The dot on the Malaysian airline radar image reminds Elizabeth of her ultrasound. Is it a fallacy to believe we could ever value the lives of strangers as much as we do our own kin?
Far from it. If we value human life, then we value the lives of others and grieve their passing. It’s what makes us human.
Elizabeth is raised by parents who buy into gender norms. Is her need to have a baby a result of societal expectations or biology?
Part of Elizabeth’s longing for a baby is to do with Phoebe, the child she wanted and lost. For a woman to carry a child that predeceases her, before or after its birth, is a heavy burden.
Elizabeth and Robert are both described as “careless in their happiness” because they make themselves financially vulnerable when they get married, assuming it’s forever. Is marriage fundamentally at odds with romantic love?
No! Some of the most romantic people I know are married. And by that, I mean that they are romantic with each other, within their own marriage. Marital happiness is, to a certain extent, a delusional state. So doesn’t it follow that romance, that most delusional of notions, must be a prerequisite?
Robert identifies a space in his life that needs filling and Elizabeth feels it could be occupied by anyone. He could argue she’s done the same. Is this always the case in relationships?
Apparently not. I’ve heard it’s possible for quite rational people to meet someone, fall for them, ask them out and have a great time, and then keep doing it with the same person, again and again and again, because they actually like them and want to be with them in particular, rather than with anyone else.
Slack-Tide is the story of a love affair with a controlling man. Here are some other examples of love stories in literature that have problematic aspects.
The romance of Tristan and Iseult, which has its roots in the 12th century, is a good place to start and gets me right in the solar plexus every time I hear it. Moving on to the 14th century, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (Oxford World’s Classics) packs a heavy punch in Middle English.
Like Shakespeare’s tale of star-crossed lovers, both of those epic poems are about forbidden love, which presents its own particular difficulties: Shakespeare’s full title for his play, of course, was The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet (Wordsworth Classics).
Anna Karenina (Penguin Classics) by Leo Tolstoy is such an acutely painful portrait of tortuous, difficult passionate love that I could hardly turn the pages the first time.
The Awakening (Penguin English Library) by Kate Chopin tells the tale of Edna Pontellier, a 19th century mother and wife cutting free of her life one steamy beachside summer, when she meets and falls for the young Robert Lebrun. It isn’t easy, chasing financial and sexual independence, nor is there any place for her to take it once it’s hers. In the end, though, I think she’d have said it was worth it.
Elizabeth Smart provides a more modern take on the by-now familiar story. Her By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept (Flamingo) is a deft, raw account of a lifelong extra-marital affair that produced a family. It’s a song or poem or hymn to love and it hurts like hell to read it.
In comparison with that list, Robert James Waller’s The Bridges Of Madison County (Arrow) might seem like a somewhat lighter take on heartbreak. Assume this at your peril, though, as I did when I sat down at a beach café last summer to re-read it. I was still there at sundown, drying my tears, unable to put the book down until I’d read the final words.
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