Tuesday, 5 June 2012

"Tideline," by Penny Hancock

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I was already in the middle of "Tideline" when I heard that it was going to be a Richard and Judy Book Club pick this year.  This will be the second of their choices that I have read - the first being "The Hypnotist" - so I will be interested to hear what they think of these novels.

Penny Hancock's novel is largely written in the first person voice of Sonia.  Sonia is a wife and mother - married to largely absent Greg, and mother to Kit - and is uncomfortable with both roles.  Sonia's largely solitary existence living in the River House is interrupted by Jez, the teenage nephew of a friend, who visits to borrow a CD.  Sonia becomes obsessed with Jez and decides to keep him captive in her beloved house.

In many ways this is a disturbing novel, not least because Sonia is essentially a likeable creation.  Penny Hancock's decision to tell the story in the first person gives an insight into Sonia's motivation and her perspective; it is clear that Sonia is a vulnerable adult who has been damaged by life.  She seems unaware of the ramifications of her actions, and means no harm even when she is manifestly causing it.  It is effective that the lesser narrative within the story - that of Helen, Sonia's friend and Jez's aunt - is in the third person so, although Helen is also sympathetic, we aren't invited into her thought processes in quite the same way that we are with Sonia.  It is an uncomfortable experience to inhabit the thought processes of someone who is doing dreadful things and to still feel sympathy for them despite their actions.
Penny Hancock gets into the story very quickly, and the novel is well paced.  I was, at first, worried that that she was releasing too much of Sonia's history, too quickly; right from the first chapter there are oblique mentions of a mysterious "Seb" who is occasionally elided with Jez in Sonia's mind.  Luckily I was wrong.  The circumstances of Sonia's life are drip-fed throughout the novel in flashbacks, with a final revelation effectively saved for the closing chapters.

Sonia is in thrall to her much loved River House - which her mother, husband and daughter want to sell - and Penny Hancock writes evocatively about the grimy yet atmospheric Thames.  The strong sense of place in "Tideline" grips the reader as surely as it has gripped Sonia herself.  There are elements in this novel - not in terms of plot, but more in tone - which reminded me of Graham Swift's novel "Waterland" (which also has an intense feeling of place in a water-logged landscape).  I haven't read "Waterland" for years, but I remember it as a truly great book so this comparison is high praise as far as I am concerned.

Thank you to Simon and Schuster for sending me a review copy of this novel.

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