Review published on December 1, 2017.
It is late 1983 in Riptide, Oregon, a small, depressed coastal town suffering the effects of a recession; the tourists have all gone and the rain seems relentless. The crime rate in the town isn’t high, usually nothing more serious than underage drinking at a Wolf Point bonfire. However, when the hundred-year-old skeleton of a Native American girl is exposed after heavy rainfall, when mutilated animals are starting to turn up on the beach and when there are sightings of a vicious, shape-changing monster, believed to be responsible for the attacks, fears grow that this is the “tah-kee-na-the”, the “sorrow-eater” legend of the Coastal Indians. Alongside the investigations into these disturbing, supernatural events, the townsfolk are still reeling from the recent deaths of two women who were killed in a head-on collision. June, the popular town librarian and Sheriff Dave Dobbs’ much-loved wife of more than thirty years, and Melissa Finster, reportedly driving whilst drunk. She was the wife of Gary and the mother of high school senior, Sam and his nine-year-old, profoundly deaf sister, Trina. Another character deeply affected by the deaths is Deputy Nick Hayslip, who had been having an affair with Melissa.
This story follows the very different ways in which Dave, Nick, Sam and Trina deal with their loss and their grief in the aftermath of the accident. Sam is a typical teenager, passionate about his music and full of plans for his future, particularly his desire to escape his small town life and to embark on a road trip with his best friend, the wonderfully rebellious Todd, also known as “Toad”. However, his mother’s death and the fact that his father is working long hours, immersed in his own grief, mean that Sam will need to put these plans on hold because he has to take responsibility for Trina. Trina can’t deal openly with her grief so externalises it by becoming obsessed with a fear that as relations between America and Russia worsen, a nuclear confrontation, with its apocalyptic effects, is inevitable. Sheriff Dobbs feels utterly bereft but deals with his grief in a stoical, taciturn way; continuing to do his job but in a less tolerant way than usual. Nick Hayslip, a Vietnam veteran is still struggling, through nightly, vivid dreams, with unresolved feelings about his wartime experiences. This struggle is exacerbated because he is unable to grieve openly about the death of Melissa. With the burden of an additional secret, which is revealed much later in the book, he starts to slowly disintegrate, both mentally and physically.
This is one of the most engaging and moving novels I have read this year. I feel in awe of the skill with which Keith Rosson integrated the political background of Reagan’s America, the tensions of the Cold War, influences of Native American culture, historic crimes against the indigenous population, magical realism and alternate history in such an impressive way. His descriptions of the Oregon coastline, the relentless rain, the mud, the rundown town, its people and their mixture of despair and hope, were so evocatively powerful that I felt I had occupied their world and their struggles for a time. He captured the way in which a community reacted to and coped with external events and threats, whether in the form of tragic deaths, the threat of an imminent nuclear war or a mythical beast, apparently intent on destruction. His reflections on the political manoeuvrings of the time were thought-provoking, as were his depictions of the ways in which society deals with anyone who is different – the tendency towards an attempt to homogenise people! I also loved his reminders of what was a rather less complicated era, when mobile phones and the internet were not central to people’s lives; when music was still played on cassettes and listened to on a Walkman – vivid memories indeed!
However, for me the novel’s real strength lies in the author’s characters, all of whom, even the minor ones, come across as three-dimensional, complex, flawed and vulnerable and, therefore, fully relatable to. The story is told, in the third person, from the alternating viewpoints of the four main characters, with a number of “brief aside” chapters which add depth and background to the story-telling. All of this means that it slowly becomes a coherent whole as the reader traces the very different ways in which they deal with bereavement, grief and the mourning process. I very quickly felt totally invested in these characters and wanted life to turn out well for them. Sam and Trina in particular quickly wormed their way into my heart and I found it very hard to live with them through their struggles and heart-break; their stories offered some wonderful insights into the world of childhood and adolescence. They remain vivid in my memory and I know that they will be difficult to forget. The very different dilemmas faced by both Dave and Nick had almost as much of an impact because of the empathy with which the author portrayed their experiences.
Keith Rosson’s beautiful, literary prose was an extra delight and certainly added to my enjoyment of this wonderful novel. There was so much richness of detail in the descriptions and yet at no time did I feel that there was a wasted word in the narrative. I found myself savouring the quality of the writing, often re-reading passages in order to enjoy them again. The way in which he managed to capture the rawness of recent loss and the process of mourning was poignantly accurate and very affecting; his descriptions of how Sheriff Dobbs was affected by the aching loss of the tiny, every day, shared routines with his wife were, at times, almost unbearably painful to read.
In addition to being a memorable personal read, this would be a wonderful choice for reading groups because of the range of themes incorporated and the highly original voice of this author. I am aware that Keith has previously written lots of short stories but this is his first published novel and, in my opinion, it is a truly remarkable debut.
Linda Hepworth 5/5
The Mercy of the Tide by Keith Rosson
Meerkat Press 9780996626248 pbk Feb 2017
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