Friday, March 23, 2018

Review of The Stone Tide by Gareth E. Rees

We generally maintain the view we are in control of our lives despite the situations which pop up to remind us we are part of a larger web of cause and effect.  From random chance to forgotten inevitability, accidents happen and everything has its own ticking clock whether we hear it or not.  And yet we push on, making the day to day decisions that would direct our lives.  It’s a difficult question to answer: when are we pilots across the sea of life, and when are we just tossed by its waves?  Caught in the wash of this question is Gareth E. Rees’ highly personal and dark The Stone Tide: Adventures at the End of the World (2018, Influx Press). 

The Stone Tide is (uncoincidentally) the story of a writer named Gareth.  Leaving London and moving to the sea-side town of Hastings with his wife and children, they buy a fixer-upper and begin investing time and money renovating the house.  Gareth still dealing with the loss of a close friend, he ponders his unexpected death while wandering the streets, hills, and parks of Hastings with his dog, Hendrix.  Memories of childhood, ideas for stories, and historical knowledge of his new city likewise criss-crossing his mind, finding out he has problems with his prostate only further occupy Gareth’s mind, leaving him to wonder whether the life he’s lead is not as he thought it was.

The Stone Tide is one of, if not the most personal novels I’ve ever read.  It feels as close as a novel can get to autobiography without being autobiography.  The loss of a close friend, the physical ailments, the relationship troubles, the mission to leave London gone awry, the failed home renovation—these feel straight from the author’s heart and have analogs in everything from the author’s bio to his jacket photo, the novel’s dedication to its acknowledgements.  Balancing the personal side of the novel is Rees’ digging into the history of Hastings, particularly the people who once called it home.  Not cut and dry exposition on who did what and when, personages like Aleister Crowley, John Baird, and Charles Dawson are instead integrated in a colorful manner that interacts with the main character’s perceptions.  Some of it flights of fancy in the form of imagined history, and some it wallowing in the idea that the three men were frauds and that Gareth too is a fraud, their inclusion extends the extremely personal side of the narrative into the wider realm.  Forcing Gareth to question the line between reality and imagined reality, fate and agency, it also converts the novel’s subtitle Adventures at the End of the World into a statement far more subjective than it reads on the surface.

And now is a good time to comment on the novel’s ending.  Thankfully not an American feel-good moment that achieves an epic high to balance the lows, Rees instead chooses another route, one much more poetic yet realistic.  It does run on a bit longer than perhaps it should (my one major criticism of the novel), but overall bundles the ideas the story had been juggling to that point into a cohesive whole, confirming—with exclamation points—the overall narrative vector and Rees’ purpose in writing the book.

The prose somewhat similar to Christopher Priest’s (i.e. light on the surface yet deeper in import), Rees clearly invested time polishing the novel to its dark shine.  Content likewise including a dozen or so photos and images (which appear to be from Rees’ personal life), it is not a text-only affair, and is something Rees uses to provide an additional layer of meaning to the surface story.  Reading a description of a park bench then seeing a photo of the actual bench is something typically seen in city guides, not in fiction.  Further blurring lines, such content does its job enhancing the portion of the novel’s theme working with the fuzzy locus of memory, recorded history, real history, fiction, and reality.  (Perhaps it is Rees himself tucked behind the television goggles on the cover?)

In the end, The Stone Tide is a curio cabinet of ideas that has no right to succeed but does for the manner in which its pieces are bonded in a very, very personal search for understanding and meaning in the midst of physical and mental struggles.  The spiral dark and cathartic, Rees integrates said struggles with the history of Hastings and the curious personages who once called the city home to create a strong undercurrent of artist/writer/person as fraudster, in turn contributing to broader metaphysical and existential questions.  Given this atypical tack, The Stone Tide will likely bounce off mainstream consumers but should be of interest to readers interested in and appreciative of the more substantive, writer-as-artist side of literature.  Virtually an impossible novel to follow up on, The Stone Tide is in the least wholly singular.

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