Reviewed by Justin Pfefferle
Tide Road. Goose Lane, 2010.
In January of 1965, in a tiny village on Prince Edward Island, Sonia’s eldest daughter, Stella, disappears. Her disappearance, like all vanishing acts, begins as a mystery. Soon, it becomes a black hole around which her mother’s thoughts – and Compton’s narrative – swirl. A tragic accident: Stella slipped through the ice, made “lolly” by unseasonably warm temperatures. An escape: Stella ran away, after finally deciding to leave her husband, Evvie. A violent crime: Stella was murdered. Either Evvie committed the act himself, or the bastard drove her to it.
Each explanation is equally plausible and implausible. Accidents happen. The indifferent universe sometimes opens itself up to swallow the best and worst of us whole. Stella was drawn to water; her eyesight was poor; “her tracks led down there, and her husband says he saw her” (64). But where’s the body? And why hasn’t she washed up on shore? Stella was impetuous, and this wouldn’t be the first time she’d run away from home. As a teenager she moved, unannounced, to Toronto, where she relished her life as an urban sophisticate. Now, stuck on the Island, in a loveless marriage to an abusive husband, Stella must have wanted out. “Sonia,” at any rate, “could understand why Stella would want to get away. She herself had wanted to run away, in the first years of her marriage” (67). But could she have left her infant daughter? It didn’t make sense. Stella must have been murdered. Everyone knew Evvie’s temper, the way that he belittled his wife. As far as the RCMP are concerned, though, “there is no evidence that he physically harmed her.” Without such evidence, what can they prove? What reason do they have to charge the man with murder?
And what do we, as readers, have but the conjecture, wishful thinking, and anger of a grieving family, a family “separating . . . spinning apart” (201)? Compton encourages us, from the first lines, not to read the story as a whodunit, nor even as an inquiry into the central mystery. We enter into the world of the novel uncertainly; the tale that we’re about to be told isn’t about certainty: Evvie “came through the door like a thunderclap, like a breeze. Hey! He yelled. Or, Hey, he said. He let the door slam. He eased it shut” (9). Tide Road is less about the announcement that Evvie makes upon entering Sonia’s home than it is about Sonia and her reaction to that announcement. His words – “Stella’s gone” (9) – unlock details from Sonia’s past, when she kept a lighthouse on Surplus Island. Compton’s semi-omniscient, apparently neutral, third-person narrator filters the world through Sonia’s perspective. Unable to separate fact from fiction, the reader knows little except that there is more to her life than her stories reveal.
We gain insights into Sonia’s character through a series of flashbacks: what brought her to Prospect; why she sees, in Stella’s disappearance, a reflection of her own narrative of loss. If Compton’s writing constructs this mirror, then that mirror is one that hides as much as it reveals. Her poetic language, economical sentences, and short chapters (some only a couple of paragraphs long) hint at depths of meaning beneath the surface of the prose. Too often, though, such compactness comes at the expense of more fully realised articulations of her characters’ emotional lives. Most of them are made of cardboard, interesting only to the extent that they play a role, however fleeting, in the drama of Sonia’s mental existence. We know certain facts about her daughters and sons: Rose loves order, Dan is quiet and gentle. Yet supporting characters remain shrouded behind a veil of unknowability; only Sonia comes to life.
Tide Road is a novel that belies knowledge. Roughly mid-way through, the narrator reflects: “there is no way to understand the events of life, not any more than you can fathom the mind of another person” (116). Compton adopts this existential dilemma as a narrative difficulty: how does one write from a position of confusion and doubt rather than one of clarity and certainty? In this regard, her style – which at times frustrates the reader by leaving so much unsaid – complements the central problem of the novel. Elegantly written and skilfully managed, Tide Road offers an impression of life without ever promising to capture the truth.
At press time: Justin Pfefferle is a PhD candidate at McGill, where he's writing a dissertation about Surrealism and documentary in Britain during the Second World War.
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