Sarah Moss – The Tidal Zone (2016)

The Tidal ZoneI would never have read this book had it not been recommended by a friend whose judgement I trust.  I certainly wouldn’t have taken it on holiday, without that recommendation.  This is a book about a Dad whose daughter inexplicably collapses and (momentarily) dies from an anaphylactic shock.  I am the mother of a child who had a serious reaction to a walnut (that I’d fed her) and had to watch as doctors stuck needles into my frightened, half-breathing girl to save her life.  Being on holiday with that child is a negotiation – health insurance, systems, languages, resources.  For example, earlier in the year we went to New York rather than Borneo, because I knew I could be understood if I needed to shout at doctors. 

Sitting in the delightful Italian sun, having just unpacked the antihistamine and checked emergency numbers, this was not a comfortable read.  Adam (the Dad in The Tidal Zone says):

“What if Rose had an emergency at school while Emma and I were on a train journey away at the hospital, what if the trains were running late or cancelled and we needed to get back to Rose?  I do not want to be here, I thought.  I do not want to be doing this.  I do not want to be the father of a critically ill child”

Despite my desire to be more eco-friendly, three years on I still can’t catch a train to work because what if…

That fear is raw in this novel, but I read it anyway, because it also has a light touch, a knowing way of laughing at the pomposity of concern.  What is more, it places that concern in a wider context, which is one of my coping strategies.  Because having to deal with a real anxiety can open your eyes to other precarities and insecurities.


This is a key theme of the book. It could also be argued that it is a word that characterises the zeitgeist (if you are philosopher) or cohort (if you do social policy).  A quick library search on the term precarity brought up 525 journal articles, the earliest being 2012.

In The Tidal Zone, two institutions come under particular scrutiny for consideration of precarity – Higher Education and the NHS – both victims of austerity compelled precarity, which allows increased management control and reduces employee resistance (Cunningham et. al., 2016).

Given the circumstances much of the action takes place in a hospital, but Emma (the mother) is also a GP and the strains of working in the NHS as well as the problems of being in need of a service are apparent:

“Mim, you know what it’s like.  They’re down two doctors and the patient list just gets longer…”

“And the government thinks GPs should be able to see patients all day and all night at the same time as doing more administration and taking more responsibilities for more complex conditions and the whole system is running on the last dregs of the goodwill of burnt-out doctors.  I know.  But…”

Adam could be described as a ‘liminal’ (zeitgeist alert) academic and the descriptions of academic life are wry and desperately accurate.

“British higher education in general is running on casual labour, on people like me who ran themselves into debt doing PhDs and then found that the old-fashioned jobs with permanent contracts and time for research were all but gone and also that they were now too old and over-qualified for the things they might have done in their twenties, law conversion courses and management trainee schemes and internships in journalism and the arts.  I know, what happened to working class jobs a generation ago is now hitting the professions”

(I like this blog, which compares university employment practices to drugs cartels.)

Precarious LifeThis precarity, this knowing how insecure and vulnerable we are sometimes makes us rant.  But it also opens up a space for acknowledging that “there are ways of distributing vulnerability, differential forms of allocation that make some populations more subject to arbitrary violence than others” (Butler, 2004: xii).

So, Adam a white male academic from his vulnerability opens up to the appalling racial divides that have led to the #BlackLivesMatter movement

“I went downstairs and put the radio on.  The American police had shot another child for being black and outside, and the child had died, there on the pavement in the company only of his killers.  Blood spreading across the tarmac, and in the child’s head pain and fear and a final, wondering realisation that no-one was going to help him.  And the parents, hours later: there’s been an incident.”

Butler argues that the shared sense of fear and vulnerability bought to us through living precarious lives opens up the possibility of reconnecting and recognising inter-dependence.

“To foreclose that vulnerability, to banish it, to make ourselves secure at the expense of every other human consideration is to eradicate one of the most important resources from which we must take our bearings and find our way.” (Butler, 2004: 30)

This is not a call for acceptance or inactivity, but that vulnerability should be used to fuel our reasoning towards greater collaboration and equality.

There is so much more I could say about this book (I haven’t even touched on the use of history, which is brilliantly explored by the author).  However, I want to finish with a rant.  Adam is angry.  His head is full of imagined conversations.  Including one with his father-in-law, the man who would put an end to the family’s precarity by buying the children out of state education.  Adam knows what he would like to say.

“Well, then, stop voting Tory, you prick, Emma did not say”

I have also never said this in my teaching, but this is my blog…



Butler, J. (2004) Precarious Lives London and New York: Verso Books

Cunningham, I., Baines, D., Shields, J., and Lewchuk, W. (2016) “Austerity policies, ‘precarity’ and the non-profit workforce: A comparative study of UK and Canada” Journal of Industrial Relations 58 (4): 455 – 472

Moss, S. (2016) The Tidal Zone London: Granta Books



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s