A terrible loss has impelled Mara, the 37-year-old protagonist of Sara Freeman’s starkly beautiful novel “Tides” (out now), to abandon her current life. The only way forward she can see for herself is to shed her roles of wife, sister and daughter. Her determined detachment is palpable from the opening sentences: “On the long bus journey out, she doesn’t cry or even have a single thought that she can name. She watches the dark impossibility of the road instead…”
Mara ends up in a small resort town nestled at the edge of the ocean’s vast expanse. It is summer, and she is blessedly anonymous on crowded streets and beaches. She spends days walking, and seeks only minimal food and shelter. Mara has pared down her interior self so that there is, as Freeman writes, “no surface on which her thoughts can find their footing.” As her cash dwindles dangerously down to zero, Mara still will not use her credit card, because then she would be found, “a pin on a map, a woman hiding in plain sight.”
Seeing the world through Mara’s eyes, you begin to sense her primal fears, if not yet their roots, of what will happen if she again fully engages with the world. Freeman slowly and strategically reveals elements of Mara’s past and her recent trauma. Consider Mara looking up at the sky one night: “The only visible sign of life: a sliver of moon, butcher’s hook looking to grab at tender flesh. She is that sliver, she thinks, slim and threatening, glinting in the night.”
“Tides” is written in the third person and in the present tense, which immerses you in Mara’s days and nights in sometimes unnerving real time. Significantly, she and all other characters are not named until almost halfway through the book; Mara is simply “she,” and other characters — teenage girls working summer jobs, day laborers, a preppy guy in a bar — are known by physical appearance and how they interact with her, in well-chosen, incisive details. It’s an effective way to reveal different characters, long before you can comfortably label them with names. Only rarely do Freeman’s descriptions read as overwritten, or break the tale’s spell.
Here is a character who is vulnerable but not entirely sympathetic, or trustworthy; a woman desperate for transformation, but also one who fears if she looks too hard at herself, she would be like “a bay stripped bare by the tides, all the scum and rocks…on hideous display.” It’s a mesmerizing portrayal, inviting understanding while flashing warnings not to get too close.
Freeman, a resident of Greater Boston, earned her MFA from Columbia University, where she won the Henfield Prize for the best work of short fiction by a graduate student. Her work has been published in a variety of literary magazines. This is her first novel.
Although “Tides” is a novel, not a novella, most pages of this physically small book show more white space than black ink, in a tightly crafted style that is somewhere between prose and a prose poem. As in a prose poem, each sentence carries substantial weight, prompting you to shift your reading to a slower, more deliberate pace.
In the town, the seasons move from summer to fall. Mara gets a job in a wine shop, and gradually gets close with Simon, the shop’s melancholy owner. In the off-season, the town acquires a different rhythm, as if returning to a “regular heartbeat after a period of strain.”
The regular pattern of work days sustains her. She frequents the local library, where she is drawn to a book of aerial photography, comforted by “how everything is made both legible and strange by distance.” This is her, trying to parse her sorrow and her accountability, trying to sharpen the boundaries where she exists separate from others in her life.
Fall eases into winter, and Mara, less numb, notices memories slowly emerging, feels the past “grabbing, pulling” at her. Now there are glimpses of her marriage; of how her husband would accuse her of being more interested in her brother’s marriage than in their own. How Mara often felt marriage was a constraint, not a haven, “a ship with its anchor stuck beneath a rock.”
Building like a burgeoning wind behind waves, scenes from her fresh and distant past threaten to swamp her growing relationships with some people in the town. How Mara and her brother (he the good and brilliant one, she the clever and headstrong one) were always close and grew closer after their father left. How she needed to navigate their mother’s gloom and unpredictable moods. How Mara had always relied on her shrewdness to survive, had always needed, for good and ill, “to make the world match her want.”
The book jacket artwork reflects the story’s exquisite complexity and ambiguity: there are layers of richly dyed paper with edges torn and textured, abstract waves of mauve and purple and blue-gray. It’s impossible to tell if they are endlessly moving away from or toward the shore.
Sara Freeman will be in conversation with novelist Joanna Rakoff at Brookline Booksmith on Jan. 28.