“Her brother told her once, not so long ago, sitting on the edge of her bed, gesturing around himself: This, here, is reality. Everyone lives here but you.”
The protagonist of Sara Freeman’s mercurial debut novel is initially unnamed, a mystery to herself as well as to the reader. The story of who this woman is, and how she came to lose herself, unfolds in short, spare snippets, each one containing a notable phrase, a point of interest. Freeman’s prose is taut and illuminating, a style that manages to be both detached and emotionally devastating.
Tides is about the stories we tell ourselves, which is to say the stories we’ve been told about ourselves. Long before she runs away from home and tries to start over in the US – the present action of the novel – Mara has been branded an outcast. One of the meanings of her name is “bitter”, a girl and woman who railed against a hard childhood with an absentee father, a difficult mother, a brother who could do no wrong. Freeman gives us a woman who was troubled before the trouble of the novel, which is a late-term miscarriage that ends her marriage to long-suffering husband.
When we meet her, Mara has fled Alberta, Canada, leaving no trace of where she's gone, landing in a wealthy American seaside town almost by accident, like a piece of rubbish adrift at sea suddenly brought to shore. This metaphor is extended in other ways – the blank space left between passages of text, the second meaning of Mara's name, the dangerous ebb and flow of her life as she lets herself be buoyed up by encounters with various townspeople, some good, some bad: "She has always wanted this: to slip beneath the surface, to dispossess herself."
A powerful intelligence underpins this work, which concerns itself with familiar subjects of loss, legacy and love. So accomplished is Freeman’s interrogation of these matters that it is hard to believe it is her first book.
Born in Montreal and based in Boston, she graduated from Columbia University with an MFA in fiction in 2013, when she won the Henfield Prize for the best piece of short fiction by a graduate student. Although her work has been published in a number of literary magazines, some time has passed since the completion of her MFA, which perhaps accounts for her beautifully observed, elegantly written debut.
This loss of appetite, the turning away from life and the eventual return of desire, the capacity to want, is central to the story
There is, in the content and succinct form, parallels with her fellow countrywoman Sheila Heti. Other authors who come to mind include Lucy Caldwell, whose recent collection Intimacies gives a remarkable account of the contemporary female experience; and English author Gwendoline Riley, with her cool eye for shattering insights and the scalpel she takes to family.
In Tides, Mara’s description of her mother comes straight from the land of Riley: “She wasn’t like a mother at all. She was the weather system under which they lived, a sudden gust followed by an eerie period of calm, a sunny day made terrifying by what might follow, by what had come before.”
Throughout the book, Mara is a compelling protagonist, spiky, wounded, a woman who feels she has nothing left to lose. For much of the narrative it is unclear whether she is trying to annihilate or save herself, the fine line between self-preservation and self-destruction, and the dramatic tension this provides: “For many years, she watched, with the fierce presentiment of the hypochondriac, for whatever was wrong in her to bloom.”
There is also a natural tension in Mara’s self-imposed exile, which can be read in narrative terms as: a stranger comes to town. Her new life as an assistant in a fancy deli and wine shop, and the relationship that ensues with owner Simon, services the plot with another mystery, namely whether it is possible to find happiness again after so much loss. Simon’s back story acts in counterpoint to Mara’s, in that he still hopes to redeem his former life, the wife and child that walked out on him.
“Not feeling is a feeling too,” Mara announces at one point in the book. This loss of appetite, the turning away from life and the eventual return of desire, the capacity to want, is central to the story. But desire, in Mara’s world, is “a temporary salve”. This is a character who believes “you could only ever be what you already were”.
If this sounds depressing, Freeman manages to show the reader that it isn’t. Realism as opposed to pessimism. Mara can’t change who she is, but she can live in a better way. “Nothing is ever over; you can never really unknow; there is no such thing as recovery, no such luxury as forgetting.” Bleak but beautiful, a life understood instead of under siege.