Literature Review: High Tide

Līga Horgana is back with another literature review, this time Inga Ābele's Paisums translated into English as High Tide by Kaija Straumanis 

High Tide by Inga Ābele is a novel about a woman, her relationships with men, the decisions she has made in the past, the mistakes she cannot fix and experiences she has gained throughout years. The work has received high approval by not only getting the Annual Latvian Literary Award but also the Baltic Assembly Literature Prize. This is not a new book either in Latvian (the book called “Paisums” in Latvian was published in 2008) or in English (English translation of Kaija Straumanis got published in USA in 2013,) but in my case this was the right book to read at the right time. I don’t think I would have been able to understand the plot and enjoy the form or the novel as well ten years ago as I can now.

The plot line of High Tide is pretty simple. The main character Ieva is a young, well-read and well-educated writer in her early 30s, who has a daughter, supportive parents and a brother with whom she has a very close relationship; she hasn’t had a happy marriage life in past, but had a passionate love after it ended. The novel looks back at the last fifteen or so years of her life. A Biblical motive runs through the whole work which deals with the question of the sorrow of life (although this is not Christian literature). It starts with a short chapter detailing a dream where the woman is talking to God and then in the next chapter mentions the Garden of Eden and man’s expulsion from there to a much crueler world that is framed between birth and death and is full of suffering. (Ieva, by the way, is the Latvian version of Eve – the first woman God created.)

GOD didn’t create words.
In the beginning there was a dream.
And at the end there was again nothing but a dream.
God appeared to a woman in a dream that was like death.
God found the woman within this dream and said to her:
“If you agree to live your life in reverse, you’ll have the power to give life back to your lover, who died young. Just don’t get your hopes up – your meeting at the crossroads will last about twenty minutes, no more. Then he’ll continue on toward old age, but you, back to childhood.”
The woman agreed immediately.
God said:
“How strange. Do you really value your own life and experiences so little that you’re willing to undo all of it without a second thought?”
The woman said nothing.
She remembered this dream when she awoke.[1]

Ieva begins as a young seventeen-year-old book-loving countryside girl who exits her perfectly happy childhood and becomes an adult. She has her first love, first sexual experiences, wedding, a lot of new responsibilities including becoming a mother, disappointment in her jealous husband, a tragic loss of her new boyfriend, and dealing with her own mental struggles. In addition to the big personal drama that happens as Ieva becomes a self-aware and independent woman, there is also the chaos, poverty, unemployment, criminal activity and alcoholism in the post-Soviet 90s. It also shows the depression of the often-romanticized underground culture with lots of drugs, liquor and casual sex. The novel talks about the relationship between generations, which includes love and inevitable discord; it is somewhat framed by the death of old ones and birth of new ones. It shows that at the end of life there is one moment when a human has to put down all of their responsibilities, become weak and helpless as a child again, and let others take care of them. The main message is that happiness is not a long-term thing. It is found in simple things and lasts for moments, and one life can contain several happy lives.

  Although it is interesting to read about the love triangle in Ieva’s life, in my opinion the greatest thing about the novel is its form, which at the same time makes the reading not easy. I could say it is written in reverse chronology; however, some chapters stand out of it. It is written from different angles, revealing not only the viewpoint of the main character but also others who are involved: for example, her husband or daughter. Chapters are very different – one can be ninety pages long while another is only a half of a page.  One is an essay full of impressions of life, one is a dialogue, another one includes a bunch of letters, and then there also can be just classic chronological narratives and conversations explaining things that have happened. High Tide is like a mosaic that consists of many different pieces the reader has to collect and put together, and when the reader finally gets to the end of the book and understands what exactly happened in Ieva’s life and why, they might want to go back to the beginning and look through the chapters again to find the details that were quite mysterious the first time the book was read. I did not read the novel twice, but I am sure if I had done it I would have found a lot of new things in it. Another thought I had but I did not try doing myself as well was reading the book from the last chapter to the beginning. Of course, we are not usually supposed to read stories from the end, but in this case, I think it might work quite well.

While I might not have liked all the parts of the book equally – some dialogues seemed too long and some letters too poetic — looking at the novel as a whole, I think it is very well planned and very well written. It is a good choice if the reader is not looking only for some simple entertaining story to read, because this work asks for a deeper look at the text, switching from one chapter to another, and a patience to deal with details that cannot be understood at first.

[1] Inga Ābele, “High Tide”, translated by Kaija Straumanis, Open Letter, 2013. 

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