Review: Thuy Onon Anna MacDonald

The Toss of the Waves

The cover of Melbourne-based critic and bookseller Anna MacDonald’s debut novel has thin streaks and untidy dabs of blue lines, with the faintest of land demarcations visible against a stark white background. The tributaries trickling across the landscape are seen from the perspective of a bird’s eye or perhaps from the cockpit of a plane. That’s the initial impression anyway, but after having read the book, the winding blue curves also call to mind the passage of an underground railway system. Such a graceful illustration is an apt precursor to this interior and meditative book.

Set in Melbourne and London, and grounded in both places, A Jealous Tide is a contemplative text, as much about wandering as it is about mental wonders. Written mostly in the first person, the novel opens with an unnamed narrator speaking of a familiar restlessness as she finds herself once again on a flight to Heathrow, ‘the pull of flight still nagged beneath my ribs’. A lecturer in English literature, whose daily discourses are on Coleridge, Poe, Ovid and Eliot, our narrator is working on a new project concerning the imagery of water in the work of Virginia Woolf. She is returning to London to examine Woolf’s manuscripts. Her task is to note ‘the repeated invocations of uneasy waters, and melancholy rivers, of immeasurable, icy seas and pools made to brood over.’ But soon, her studies ripple out to other obsessions and she begins to draw connections between ‘stories of the drowned, the saved, the wholly lost and the only temporarily adrift.’

A Jealous Tide is awash with watery images, The buoyancy of a plane makes the narrator feel as though she’s gliding through a submarine, but also, and rather contrarily, while moving among the clouds, and unmoored from earth, she believes flying is akin to drowning. The line between sea and sky seems amorphous, porous. Upon spying a shaft of white light across the body of the continent below the narrator imagines ‘schools of albino creatures that have never felt the sun’. Mid-flight, she considers that ‘every heave of turbulent air [feels] like an angry wave crashing over a a ship’s main deck.’ Gazing upon the vapour trails of another flight path she muses that they look like ‘rippled sandbanks against the sky like sea tide on the ebb.’ Later, the bare bulbs suspended from a restaurant ceiling light the room ‘like a celestial constellation by which men at sea might find their way in to port.’

The narrator herself has never been afraid of water, having learnt to swim in Fiji and then later, Bondi. She’s confident giving herself to the toss of the waves, trusting her weight will be carried. Her childhood and early adolescence were spent in the shallows at high tide fossicking for cockle and limpet shells, and now back in London she finds herself taking up her scavenging ways, picking up random river detritus, ‘stones made meek by the tidal friction of time, wood made light by water the way timber-cum-charcoal is lightened by fire’ and bringing back these found objects of glass, ceramic shards and other mudlarking remnants to her bedsit to marvel at their provenance.

There’s no denying the beauty of MacDonald’s prose, but at times the book’s immersion in bodies of liquid becomes overwrought; more than once there are references to rising to the surface after being sunk deep in dreams, returning to ‘wrung-out lungs in even breaths’. Every day minutiae are described thus: the ‘latitudinal rings’ of a tea mug, while cutlery drawn up from the bottom of a sink are junk lifted from a shipwreck.

The novel’s title is drawn from from stories the narrator, ever the gleaner, collected in her youth. The passage that explains the reference is worth quoting in full as an example of McDonald’s lyrical style. The narrator reflects that the tales she gathered were about

jealous seas that gathered ships close to its belly the moment they came within sight of new land; of the few survivors who left countless dead to graze upon the ocean floor and found themselves washed up on a strange shore, made even stranger by the bewildering experience of wreck and of their cabin possessions rinsed for centuries now by salt water. Jewels become coral. The bone of a fine-toothed com learned to resemble the spines of a sea bird’s wing. Blue, green and once-white glass turned pebbly and opaque, slowly returning to sand.

Such finely-observed detail makes the novel a lingering pleasure to read. It’s not a pacy, suspenseful book; the narrative folds into itself in a recursive fashion. The chapters in this study of introspection are short; some are only two pages long. But they are rich, redolent in image, sensuality and disquiet as the researcher widens her ambit of interest to include near and successful suicides, drowning, rescue, and resuscitation, as well as histories of shipwrecked survivors throughout time. Within the book, water is seen as both a refuge and a danger. The narrator seeks to understand, for example, suicide by drowning. Can the appeal be the ‘baptismal association of immersion’, a sensation of cleansing and renewal? Is that purposeful walk into the sea considered a journey not into death but towards life? ‘It was as if something in the human bodycome from water, made of it looked forward to a return to those elemental depths’.       

A Jealous Tide is also a very literary book, one that assumes the reader is familiar with the texts contemplated by the narrator. Here, MacDonald has form. Her first publication was a series of deeply reflective literary essays called Between the Word and the World (2019); this collection offers insight into the preoccupations that are explored in her novel. Like A Jealous Tide, Between the Word and the World is digressive in its examination of authors such Woolf, W.G. Sebald, Teju Cole, and Deborah Levy, and is structured thus so that the work of these writers is set against reflections on the vagaries of walking and interacting with the world. In one essay, MacDonald notes that she’s always been a walker; it was ‘less a way of going than an attempt at being still, it became a shortcut to solitude’, and later, a means of discovery.

A Jealous Tide follows the same meandering principle: the narrator casually lets the work of the authors she is researching and contemplating infiltrate her narrative. Years ago she’d meticulously transcribed and collated ‘anecdotal, literary, medical, eyewitness’ and any other accounts she could find of the drowned, not quite recalling how she’d originally been drawn to such a task. Images from this earlier work ‘rise to the surface like weed from a turbulent seabed.’ Woolf’s description of the Thames ‘on whose banks she found the happiness of death’ is but just one example of such a resurfacing. There’s also Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym, who with his drunk friend Augustus, set sail on their boat Ariel, only to become shipwrecked; the pair nearly drowned before resuming their subsequent misadventures on a whaling ship. Elsewhere, we encounter Dickens’ Magwitch, who ‘appeared to Pip like a voyager at sea, come from the new southern world many a thousand of miles of stormy water away from this one, having been sea-tossed and sea-washed for months upon months’ and Chekhov’s monk ferryman, Ieronym, and his ‘silently parting the mist between shores as he carried his passengers from one riverbank to the next.’

Structurally, the book is not chronological, but rather sifts through the narrator’s memories of texts and streets and riversides, from the Yarra to the Thames. It is languorous in tone and possessed of a quiet intensity. While she goes about her day: reading, note taking, taking public transport and tarrying in her strides, her narrator does not talk to anyone; there is no direct communication recorded with friends, family or lovers. Her protagonist exists purely on the page in a stream of dialogue with herself. And yet, aside from her solipsistic ways, she’s also a keen observer, an outsider looking at those around her, barely interacting with them, it’s true, but closely attending to their conversations or actions all the same. The teenage girls with their fruit lip balm, Ugg boots and fashion magazines at the airport, the family at restaurant dinner, the passengers devoted to reading on the train: all such fellow creatures are noticed with the curious but non-intrusive air of an anthropologist chancing on unfamiliar specimens.

She is always alone but the solitude sits heavily on her, ‘More than the loss of places I knew, more than music, even more than water, I feared the loss of other people. I feared falling out of orbit alone.’ The reader is left wondering what has caused her to feel such grief, what has she lost already to be wary of further absences? What trauma has she survived in her historic or recent past? But there is no elaboration, and this mystery envelops the narrator like a mist.

Instead, integrated into the novel is a third-person account of other stories of loss from a century earlier. The narrator has noted in past trips that there’s a plaque on Hammersmith Bridge in London, commemorating one Lieutenant Charles Campbell Wood, who dived from the spot into the river Thames in the winter of 1919 in pursuit of a flailing woman. She’d walked into the icy depths, to offer it her life. The Lieutenant may have recently survived the war, but the injuries sustained in this rescue mission were grave enough to prove fatal. Interestingly, the name of the saved soul is lost. With scarce information available to her, the narrator is free to imagine the backgrounds of these fated two and presents their sorry tales to us: the shellshocked RAF soldier having to acclimatise to civilian life once more and falling heavily from air to land in his scrabble for purchase to normality. And the woman, seeking release from the fear that she will hear of news that her soldier sons have died.

While reading the accounts of shipwreck survivors, the researcher learns about the importance of routine, especially when it comes to the dispensing of rations and sleep. Imposing structure on time adrift was a way of holding fast to the world when it was in danger of slipping away. ‘It gave each day a kind of organising orbit of its own’, she writes, perhaps by way of explaining the holding patterns in her own life that let her while away the hours: the research, the meanderings, the writing are all measured out in doses. She feels intently the loneliness of the survivors, ‘whose remaining energies must be dedicated to being still and still moving.’ Though MacDonald does not offer any relationship background to explain it, her narrator’s need for constant migration expresses a vulnerability. Her restlessness – she even walks in her dreams – speaks to her departure and alienation from familial, friendly or sexual complications.         

As A Jealous Tide continues, MacDonald abandons the apparatus of realism in favour of a more playful and elaborate approach. The contours of time and place erode. The narrator’s watery fancies of libraries turning into vessels become hard to distinguish from the hallucinations of the shipwreck survivors she’s researching . The traffic outside filtered through the windows takes on the rhythmic sound of waves; the railing, encircling the library’s upstairs gallery, becomes a ship’s deck, listing in the breeze; the ladders are knotted ropes over the sides of a sinking ship. And her desk is now a lifeboat as she ‘magicks’ herself onto a bench seat, a sole survivor adrift in open sea.

This dense novel volume seethes with evocative images of the returned and the rescued: the walking wounded from the war are seen in relief against the shipwrecked survivors. The narrator is curious to find out ‘what happened to these men who had been made strangers to the known world by their time cast away’ and ultimately it is this curiosity that carries the novel. MacDonald brings together tales of displacement and anchoring, of shifting ground and the difficulty, nay impossibility, of coming home intact and undamaged in A Jealous Tide. These heavyweight themes are lifted by the grace of the prose, and by its beguiling narrator who’s forever ‘being still’, distracted in the recesses of her mind, and yet ‘still moving’, traipsing around the streets and river-bound in search of release, inspiration and wonder.

Published December 7, 2020
Part of Juncture: JUNCTURE is a fellowship program presenting a series of new essays on Australian and international literature by leading critics.  All Juncture essays →
Thuy On

Thuy On is a Melbourne-based freelance arts journalist/critic. She’s written for a variety of...

Essays by Thuy On →