Books

Anna MacDonald
A Jealous Tide

A physical restlessness pulses through the pages of A Jealous Tide, as its unnamed protagonist walks along rivers – first the Yarra, then the Thames – ruminating on gravity and tidal pulls, what it means to be cast adrift, and how returning from such a state may well be impossible. The narrator is an academic, ostensibly studying the use of rivers and oceans in Virginia Woolf’s novels, but drawn, increasingly and instead, to reading about drownings and watery near-deaths, and to accounts of shipwreck survivors and their injuries. She is working in Melbourne, and then conducting her research in central London, but always walking and thinking, always feeling the pull of migration, of movement, of “being still and still moving”, upon her body.

Anna MacDonald’s novel is intensely interior, tracking the mind and its movements within a largely still exterior. Her protagonist is quiet, mainly sticking to small routines and work, and almost always alone; she rarely speaks or interacts with anyone. Instead, she thinks, she imagines and she dreams – chapters that outline her day-to-day activities are interspersed with those that follow memories, or, later, an unfolding narrative about a near-drowning that the protagonist has invented from a scrap of historical fact. So too are her dreams – often about ships and sea creatures or labyrinthine streets – given equal weight; and what’s interesting here is the way in which certain images, thoughts and phrases (a tideline in a cup of tea that’s “equatorial”; a sense of being held up or together only by gravity) recur across them all.

There’s a liquid quality to A Jealous Tide – that is, one that’s echoed in its interest in the unconscious and its workings, and in the slippery nature of the deep loneliness and grief at its centre. It’s clear that the protagonist has survived something – at one stage, she refers to her research into shipwreck survivors as being about the “loneliness of the survivor”, and she has several dissociative episodes and panic attacks across the book. But precisely what she has survived is always left unspoken, a haunting beneath the surface of the text, and it becomes all the more resonant for this. The writing itself is rhythmic and exacting in its details, and only rarely slips from its tight restraint. A Jealous Tide is a compelling and unsettling book, and one that is both beautifully ambitious and remarkably assured.

Fiona Wright

Splice, 214pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 24, 2020 as "Anna MacDonald, A Jealous Tide".

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Reviewer: Fiona Wright