‘Tide Road’ by Valerie Compton

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Lee Kvern

Valerie Compton is a short story writer from Halifax, two-time winner of the Island Literary Award for fiction/non-fiction, shortlisted for the CBC Literary Awards. Grain, New Quarterly, The Malahat Review and Antigonish Review are a few of the literary magazines that have published her work. Tide Road is her first novel.

Set in Prospect on Prince Edward Island beginning in January 1965, Sonia is the widowed mother of five children. Her eldest daughter, Stella, married to Evie, has a child of her own, and lives close by on shared farmland. Then Stella disappears one borrowed, spring-like day, has slipped through the ice perhaps, according to her husband’s hazy account, fallen into a lolly – a soft spot, like Stella herself, who is surrounded by the sharp hardness of ordinary ice. This ice is a metaphor for Stella’s life that we come to understand in her mother’s retrospect of grief.

On this borrowed day in January:

It was a liar, that stunning day. Trust me it said. Revel in my beauty. Who imagines betrayal behind such glittering, extraordinary promise?’

Only Sonia doesn’t believe it. Pushed possibly, or better yet in Sonia’s mind, the idea that Stella has run away from what her mother suspects was an abusive marriage, a family legacy that Sonia fails to recognize as hers. Now, Sonia is filled with the culmination of guilt, remorse, her self-flagellation that she is not the mother she should have been, that in each of her five children, she has failed them all, especially her wall-eyed, Stella.

Her narrative shifts back to Surplus Island, P.E.I. in 1943, where Sonia did a brief stint as a lighthouse keeper in the absence of her farming husband, Max. Here is where she begins to delineate herself as a young woman, an aspiring artist, in control of not only the lighthouse but her own life away from the males figures that have defined her in the past, her father, her brothers, her domineering husband, Max. Here is also where she meets Pete, a university student studying to be a doctor, who exemplifies what might have been as opposed to what will be. But life’s circumstances intervene and by default, Sonia chooses Max, while Pete follows his career.

The writing in Tide Road is so pervasive, Sonia is so deeply intelligent, pondering her life’s choices, the effect she’s had on her children, and the flowing, tidal pool of P.E.I.’s landscape that feels like a love affair itself. So much a sure part of who Sonia is, and yet, a woman of deep misgivings, constant regret, a woman able to turn away from the icy truth of things, inventing instead, soft, dream-like places she can hid in, Sonia weaves back forth from 1941 to 1965 filling in the blanks, deftly colouring the canvas.

The characters themselves are simply sketched, wonderfully drawn as illustrated in her dexterous description of the two RCMP officers as observed by Sonia:

‘She thought Harry looked slack and sad, all trembly belly and grey skin. His eyes had that opaque cast you sometimes see in people who are profoundly bored. He wasn’t bored, though. He was intent: still as oil, focused, waiting. He let the boy introduce himself.

Sonia shook her head in response. “You’re so young,” she said sadly, as though it were his lost life they’d come together to lament.’

There is no doubt that Compton is master of character, perhaps too good, in that the wide cast of characters, both in the beginning and at the end, almost threaten to overtake this tragic story of Sonia’s lost and found scenario. The cast includes: Sonia and her husband, Max, deceased, but whom we see in flashbacks, Stella and her husband, Evie, and their baby daughter, Kate; Sonia’s other four children: Dan, Rose, Frances and Rob, whose lives we get glimpses of throughout, and their present counterparts; Pete, of the past and again in the present, along with the farming community. This cast is overwhelming at times, diluting the amazing character development that Compton has worked so hard to achieve in Sonia alone.

This same issue crops up in the ending. The novel closes in Lord of the Rings style with the narration suddenly spanning forty years into the future, when throughout we were privy and privileged (privileged, because Compton’s intimate familial work is a beauty to behold) to go back and forth between 1941 and 1965. The wrap-up plays out in multiple characters; unfortunate, because all one needs is Sonia’s resolve, Sonia’s much-deserved reprieve from her grief and guilt, her new beginning at life. Although even this is forgiven in the bigger scape of Compton’s beautiful, sprawling Tide Road. Not unlike the aspiring artist who learns time and time again with each new work when the painting is done, when to lift your hand, set down the brush and allow the work to be.

Goose Lane | 240 pages |  $19.95 |paper | ISBN #978-0864926357


Lee Kvern

Lee Kvern’s new book of short stories 7 Ways to Sunday, will appear with Enfield & Wizenty in spring 2014. Lee's work has been produced for CBC Radio, and published in Event, Descant, and on Joyland.ca, New York.