Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Highest Tide - Jim Lynch

The Highest Tide was not an easy book to get through. It might sound as a strange assertion for a book so many reviewers raved about, but it’s actually meant as a compliment. Some books create images of such utterly magical universes, places that are simultaneously believable and incredible, it’s impossible not to get caught up in them, and left daydreaming in the middle of a paragraph. They have the allure of classic tales, but can happen in almost any time, and after you read them you can’t never quite get away from them. You’ll be sitting in your sofa, outside it will start raining and suddenly you’re in Mary Poppins’s London, or you’ll be staring at the sea and recall as if they were acquaintances, Sophie and her Grandmother, from Tove Jansson’s Summer Book. If you ever felt this way about a book and it’s characters, you should read Lynch’s book – Miles O’Malley is the kind of boy most of us wish we had been – even, or especially, if we’re girls.

Miles is just starting adolescence and already he’s feeling left behind: “ I came off as an innocent nine-year-old even though I was an increasingly horny, speed-reading thirteen-year-old insomniac”. The time he should spend sleeping is however, put to better use than most adults who are also sleepless in Seattle (a crummy joke granted, but the story takes place in nearby Olympia, also in Washington state, so I really had to): this kid devours books on everything to do with the ocean and its life forms, and his muse, which he can quote at will, is Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, and also a trilogy on the ocean and the evolution of life. Miles wanders about in the bay, which is almost his front yard, in a kayak and also collects specimens at low tide to be sold to restaurants or aquarium owners of nearby towns. His incredible summer, a perfect coming of age season by the way, starts with a midnight ramble in which Miles comes face to face with a marine biologist’s jackpot: an honest to goodness giant squid taking its last breaths in a few feet of water.

Some rash statements to the local press, and Miles uncanny ability, at least it seems so to outsiders, to find unusual things in the shallows, combined with the midsummer slump on news stories, are all it takes to turn him into a local celebrity, followed by other teenagers who never gave him a second look, cult-members of a nearby compound and of course a whole bunch of reporters, slimy as sea cucumbers.

Of course the women who matter most in Miles O’Malley’s world remain elusive to the end: his mother who feels so trapped and suffocated by small-town life, she doesn’t realize how amazing her own son turned out; Florence, the elderly psychic who resists every attempt to curb her independence even if a neurological disease is making her increasingly dependent on a thirteen-year-old; and Angie Stegner, former babysitter and now full-time crush, part-time punk-rocker, whose age, bipolar disorder and random drug experimentation, make her so distant as if she were in the deepest, darkest depths of the sea.
One of the great things about Lynch’s book is that, even though it can be read by a twelve-year-old, it never gets sentimental or naïve: Florence keeps stacks of books on tantric sex, Angie doesn’t sugar coat her confessions of substance abuse or drunken threesomes, and Phelps, Miles main buddy, is never far from crassness. In fact, a refreshing factor in Lynch’s characters is that they talk with Miles, at least most of the time, as if he were an adult. When they don’t come out and say it, you only have to listen to know what goes on in their heads – as when he finds out about his mother’s frustration because she hasn’t been to “ a real city” since his birth.

The reason Jim Lynch’s book was hard going at times was that I started missing its characters almost since the beginning. If this were a TV series I would want nothing less than ten seasons. I want to know what happened to Judge Stegner, Angie, Miles’s parents, professor Kramer, Phelps and most of all I want to know how Miles grows up to become an adult.
Even if Jim Lynch doesn’t oblige, we can only hope his next book is just as spirited. That, and a modestly priced second-hand kayak.

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