Book cover: the sketch of a naked leg with colours swirling around it.

Katia Ariel
The Swift Dark Tide

The parade of lyrical fragments – sensual moments, family stories, ethical inquiries and daily records – that makes up The Swift Dark Tide isn’t easy to categorise, so author Katia Ariel does it for us. The book, she tells us, is “a diary that doubled as a breathing exercise that tripled as a love letter”, one that would “become a memoir, a repository of secret questions, a conversation about loss” and a map of “the route I used to bring my erotic animal home”. Ariel’s “animal” – a word that comes up often – prowls across these pages, sniffing, scratching and howling as she struggles with the realisation that, after having three beautiful children with Noah, the kind and generous man she still considers her “soul co-pilot”, she is madly, inescapably, in love with another woman.

The person Ariel discovers herself to be wrestles with the person she once believed she was. Meanwhile, her hunger for self-expression – an “unrelenting conversation with the need under the need” – crashes against the firmly private nature of the woman she loves, the unnamed “you”. Among the other taut threads in the narrative is the elemental pull between the fluid freedom of the sea – both in its real and metaphorical manifestations – and the violent solidity of the land.

Melbourne may be the site of the emotional “hurricane” that “rip[s] the roofs off our houses”. But it is the passages about Odessa, the city where Ariel was born and that nurtured the three generations of passionate and unruly Russian Jewish women to which she belongs, that struck me as the true heart of The Swift Dark Tide. At the heart of the heart are the luminescent folktale-like stories written by Ariel’s gentle grandfather as a way of processing both his heartache at her grandmother’s infidelities and his enduring love for her. These spread their illumination over everything.

Ariel’s bent for New Age-ish spirituality does give the book the occasional whiff of woo-woo. She consults clairvoyants. The ocean (she/her) gives the author advice. Ariel also tells us about her son Levi’s “lotus birth”: she and Noah wrapped the placenta in a nappy and carried it “like a little umbilically attached handbag” until the whole business fell off on its own. She likens that experiment to a “social filter”: anyone grossed out by this would remain but a “tourist” in their lives. That would be me. But that doesn’t mean I’m not glad to have had a ticket for the journey.

Gazebo, 230pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 20, 2023 as "The Swift Dark Tide".

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