The Tide King by Jen Michalski
Black Lawrence Press, 2013
$19.95 (paperback) | Amazon
Michalski’s tale cannot be roped in by any genre. With stealth, precision, grace and heart she weaves a story that spans two centuries through the non-linear timeline of bloody hell in the trenches of war, witch hunts of the 1800’s, herbs of immortality, brothels, Nashville, and the most intriguing and evocative characters ranging from a soldier and a young girl who will never age or die to a prostitute with the face of a doll, the body of a dwarf, and talent and ambition that move her to the top of the music charts and fame. The magic realism entwined through this story is taken by the hand and grounds it through character development, exceptional dialogue, and spellbinding plot.
When I first started reading Michalski’s novel I thought, oh, no, a war story. There were only a few of those that had mesmerized me, of late, like Tim O’Brien’s, The Things They Carried. But, Michalski is as much a master as O’Brien. She wrapped me easily inside her extraordinary storytelling and inimitable cast that held me captive in a world I wasn’t sure could take me down and then wasn’t sure I wanted to resurface from. As a writer, I wanted to decipher this phenomenon of layers and structure that created this magic, but the reader in me was traveling with the plot and easily let go of that and rode with her as it unfurled. Then, I read it again.
Here are a few quotes:
“Around them, disembodied heads, arms, and backpacks floated in the air before gravity pulled them back to earth.”
“Some other men came over and smoked their own cigarettes. Everyone was dirty and smelled and shivered. Some cried. Some prayed, their mouths wide and moving. Some went through the pockets of the Germans and put watches, cigarettes, soft-edged pictures of girls into their boots and helmets.”
“It was impossible to see where anything began or ended.”
“Witches, they were sometimes called. But as long as the tinctures worked, no one became upset.”
The Tide King is a brilliant, unrestrained novel of compelling narrative and legend. Time jumps back and forth from the early 19th century through WWII into the late 70’s. Michaski introduces characters, who make choices that seem inevitable and whose longings and misgivings evoke eternal human experience.
“And now there was the child. He leaned over her and held out his hands as Cindy’s face went red and purple and white and then went again like Christmas lights. He patted the claw of her fist that had begun to separate the vinyl fabric of the front seat from the stuffing. He tore off his jacket, an old shearling rancher’s coat, and held it between her legs, ready to cloak the pink nub of hairy eraser, Calvin or Heidi, that had appeared and bring its little plum-sized heart next to his, and Cindy’s hair, long and blonde, caught her lips as she groaned and pushed once, twice, three times, and the slippery girl wormed out into the cocoon of Stanley’s coat, Heidi.”
What I love about these characters is that they don’t formulate into society’s expectations, especially women in the ‘40s and the early ‘70s. The baby is born, but Cindy leaves the baby with Stanley to pursue her career, go for the fame, and Johnson is found washed up on the lake by a rifle-toting wild woman, Maggie, who wears men’s dungarees and denim shirts and lives contentedly in a cabin alone in the ‘70’s.
But Maggie also gets that Johnson is far from normal. He talks about a fire that happened in ’47. That was when he washed up on shore.
“But he still could not believe it, that he had been in the lake for 23 years.”
So here we have one of the characters who has been given eternal life. Johnson tries to explain it to Maggie:
“Something happened to me back during the war,” he explained. “In Germany. And I haven’t been right since. It’s driving me crazy–it’s like…I can’t get injured. Apparently I can’t die.” Johnson had been taken for dead in a pile of bodies in WWII with an amputated leg and had not only come back to life, but the leg was intact with no scars to be seen. And now had come back once again after two decades in the water.
I am never sure if I can actually be pulled in by a tale that speaks of eternal life, even though life feels that way, especially on Mondays. Sometimes I get dragged out of the story by the supernatural and wonder why the author has veered off the human trail and how I can possibly be rocked back in again, but this is never the case in The Tide King. Michalski has that wand and I have no problem taking that turn with her or any turn for that matter. There are a few characters that have ingested this herb, saxifrage, which bestows them with immortality. And the character’s find that it’s not something to be envied when they watch friends and family growing older and dying, while they remain untouched by time. Rather than feeling enchanted, they feel cursed by the endless passage of life.
Michalski’s novel is unquestionably one of those tales you want to continue, not because it doesn’t satisfy, but because you want to keep moving with these characters wherever they go.