Mara flees her family and ends up adrift in a wealthy coastal town. When her money runs out and the tourist season comes to a close, she finds a job in a local wine store and meets its owner, Simon, a man whose loneliness she immediately recognises as a mirror to her own. Mara soon carves out an unconventional life for herself within Simon’s and, squatting in the shop and living off its produce, her appetite and desires begin to reawaken. Poetic and spare, Tides reflects the natural ebbing of grief following a loss that is gradually revealed to have threatened to pull Mara under.
The book follows Mara as she travels from Canada over the US border to a wealthy coastal town. As a Canadian living in the US, can you explain the relationship between the two and what crossing the border means?
Mara crosses the border into the US very early in the story. The border crossing happens fluidly, without difficulty, a fact that is nearly elided in the narrative. I worried when I first wrote the book that the ease with which Mara crosses the border might be perceived as insensitive to the harsh realities of border-crossing. And yet I felt it was crucial that Mara make this crossing into the US, the country where her mother is from – a kind of fraught homecoming. As a white woman whose mother was born in the United States, Mara is certainly afforded the unearned privilege to move freely across the border. Although perhaps the ease with which Mara crosses the border also reflects her dissociated state – in my experience, even the more benign northern border is designed to intimidate and alienate.
In her despondency Mara finds it impossible to read but is still comforted by books – she turns to poetry and art books. Tell us about the form of this novel and whether it is a reflection of Mara’s feelings towards long-form prose.
The form of the book emerged quite naturally in the process of finding a shape to tell Mara’s story. In a first draft, I wrote in a more straightforward, long-form way, but when I re-read what I had written, I had a sense that the truest reflection of Mara’s predicament, the felt reality of her experience, was captured instead in a few atmospheric lines – short, declarative, slightly dislocated descriptions of place, objects, mood – spare shards of language. I thought of Mara nearly in an infantile state, like a child learning words and their meanings, excessively attuned to language, to all its constituent parts. Mara’s approach to the world, her rebuilding of normalcy after a rupture, is certainly reflected in the material she allows herself to apprehend at the local library. You might say she doesn’t want to read long-form novels because of their tendency to elucidate and explain – I too was wary of over-emphasising Mara’s motivations, or making psychological interpretations. Given the freshness of her wounds, she cannot manage this level of scrutiny – she needs pauses, blank spaces on the page, images rendered abstract in their scale.
Mara also has a complicated relationship with language. She grew up speaking French with her father and when he left it was forbidden as the “language of the oppressor”, which Mara notes is a strange inversion of the politics of the area. What is the impact of suppressing the language on Mara?
French was the language she spoke with the parent with whom she had most fluency and ease. When her father leaves, so does that ease. And yet, even though the language is forbidden, she cannot forget it. Such is the force of one’s mother tongue (in this case, ironically, her father’s language). French becomes a way, at least internally, for her to stay tethered to her absent father, and perhaps to a part of herself, which her mother cannot reach. French represents an inner freedom. This is a reversal, in many ways, of my own experience with language. I grew up bilingual, and went to school in French, which I found a very repressive, rule-based language. I discovered my ideas, feelings, and sense of self in English. I don’t know what I would have done if that had been taken away from me at a young age.
Tell us about Mara’s relationships with men and women and how they relate to the themes of “those who leave and those who are leftover”.
This phrase, recalled by Mara, belongs to her mother, a woman who is full of strongly held, superstitious beliefs about men and women, about her own marriage and its failure, the differing roles and merits of her son and daughter. These are limiting beliefs. Throughout much of the book, Mara is haunted by these types of phrases, which function as refrains in the family story, and ultimately in the story of herself. In leaving behind her family, becoming the “one who leaves”, Mara tries to shake off some of these gendered beliefs about men and women, to find a way to be a woman, a person, in a new way, on her own terms. And yet these “leftover” terms do continue to define her in a way that I find quite tragic.
Can you talk about the theme of the sea and the tides and how their meaning to Mara changes throughout the book?
Sometimes, I think that my job as a writer is to not understand too fully, to not look too closely at the way a certain theme or metaphor works. As I write, I try to inhabit the world of symbol and allusion so totally it becomes like a second skin. The sea and the tides influenced not only the setting I chose for the novel, but the very rhythms and repetitions of the language, the placement of the currents of language on the page. These currents are indistinguishable from the push and pull of Mara’s internal rhythms and repetitions.
Both women could be said to have made a choice but Mara and the destitute addict she sees around the wealthy seaside town are both victims of circumstances and trauma and Mara herself is homeless. Why does she give the addict her coat?
At the most basic level, Mara identifies with the other woman, identifies with her vulnerability and her addiction. Like all doubles, the other woman is both very much like Mara, and nothing like her at all. Mara’s own addictions may be more subtle, her precarity less extreme, but her sense of togetherness is hanging by a thread. I can’t say exactly why Mara chooses this exact moment to give away her coat – the act itself is impulsive – but I suspect it has something to do with the fact that the other woman is visibly pregnant, that Mara identifies with that pregnancy, and is reminded of her own loss. Perhaps in one sense then, she is giving her old self a gift; in another, she is giving up the only source of material comfort she has earned during her stay. This also reflects Mara’s pattern, one might call it addictive, to come close to happiness, close to stability, and somehow, unconsciously find a way to renounce that possibility.