Valerie Compton’s Tide Road tells the story of a woman who tries to understand her daughter’s disappearance. While trying to figure out what happened, Sonia is forced to look at her own life and reconcile the problems of her past .
After Stella’s disappearance, Sonia questions if she ever had the capability to mother the way other women did. She poses countless answerless questions like if she had “paid enough attention to Stella” and tries to battle the “quiet, quiet, quiet like a raging noise” asking the central question why. The result: the reader gets an extremely close look into this complex character. The relationship she has with us is the most intimate one. Sonia constantly meditates on what happened to Stella—was it murder, an accident, or an escape plan—and the lighthouse serves as a guide for her thoughts symbolizing her past happiness and independence. Under the weight of guilt that creeps within her the way the tide is creeping over the road, Sonia finally accepts that sometimes “human beings fail each other”, and it is not until the end does something let go and she then has the capacity to be happy with her family and to embrace her life that is full of love, forgiveness and color.
Compton tells this story of powerlessness, guilt, and forgiveness with writing that is intimate, controlled and powerful. She is a skilful writer whose work is reminiscent of Margaret Laurence and Bernice Morgan. I look forward to what comes next.
INTERVIEW with VALERIE COMPTON
Sonia’s mourning process is authentic, deep and long. How did you come to create this character and understand her grieving process?
Thank you for the word authentic. Above all else, I think, it’s important that fiction be emotionally true. For me this means that writing it is a process of invention powered by empathy. So writing the novel is a matter of keeping my characters company, being with them as they make discoveries and advances and mistakes, and continually wondering about the effects of joy and loss on their lives. Sonia was fascinating character to create because she so misunderstands her own life in the beginning of the novel. Her changing perception of the world sustained my interest all the way through the writing, and still does.
Can you tell me a little about the writing process of Tide Road.
Tide Road began, just as my stories do, with a brief flash of character and scene, out of which I built the novel through a long and gradual process of accretion. It was eight years from start to finish, but I wasn’t working on the novel every day. In the first few years it was slow going, and in the last few months I wrote for hours on end, day after day. I don’t have a regular writing habit so much as a commitment to immersion. What this means is that the novel or story I’m engaged with is on my mind all the time, like a computer program running in the background. When I’m not at my desk, I accumulate scraps of paper in my pockets and I let these sort themselves into piles; I write scene after scene that may or may not be connected chronologically; I revise continually; and it usually isn’t until I have most of the material written and polished that I find a way to make sense of the plot and structure. It’s a terrible way to work, anxiety-inducing and chaotic at points, but it feels organic, and I think that’s important. Because what good is a novel that isn’t true?
The lighthouse was one of the only places in Sonia’s life where she felt herself and independent. Thinking about those times at the lighthouse particularly with Pete oftentimes saved her from the reality of her harsh life. It was a place of safety for her. Did you consciously try to create that symbolism or was that something that manifested as the story progressed?
How interesting! I hadn’t thought about the lighthouse this way. Initially, I just wanted Sonia to be on the water. If I’d been able to manage the research, I would have put her to work on a fishing boat. But I am terrified of being out on open water in a small boat, so I had to settle for something that didn’t scare the living daylights out of me. That’s how Sonia became a lightkeeper. Later on, I was glad that things worked out this way. I became interested in what you can and cannot see from the top of a lighthouse tower. The novel is so much about perception, and a lighthouse is like an eye on a stalk. It seemed perfect.
Lisa Moore said in an article in Chatelaine (Sept 2010): “try to have children in your life, whether they’re related to you or not.” How do you think this statement applies to Tide Road and the effect Kate and Lily’s presence has on Sonia particularly at the end of the novel?
Motherhood is fraught for Sonia. It’s also central to who she is, and impossibly tangled with the other complications in her life, until the very end. When I was revising, someone observed that the word responsibility appeared in the novel over and over again. I cut it in a few instances but not everywhere, because for Sonia, just as Lisa Moore asserts in that Chatelaine essay, “Children are your responsibility.” I really admire the clear-eyed way Lisa characterizes motherhood in her novel February, especially the difficult early period immediately after her protagonist Helen’s husband is lost. Helen does her best, but she is far from perfect. This kind of portrayal is rare. The rich challenge of motherhood, and the way it is complicated by other relationships, is not, strangely, a preoccupation in literature—though of course it is in life.
Sonia’s life progresses without her really having a say in the direction it will take: she continually contemplates the decisions she’s made; the choices that have been taken from her; and the nature of her relationships. In more than one way, there are feminist themes at work here. Was creating those themes a primary goal or are they a product of a story that, I think, very accurately depicts old school outport life.
As a reader I might notice theme, but as a writer I try not to. Interestingly, no one’s asked me about feminism with respect to this novel before. I think partly this has to do with how the f-word is perceived in the culture. Even dedicated feminists argue about what the word means and how they should express it in their lives, with the unfortunate result that it is often a divisive rather than inclusive concept. Happily, the novel is not a rhetorical form; it’s an emotional one. A novel about women’s lives might necessarily embody feminist ideas, but it doesn’t build an argument out of them. This means it’s possible for the reader to be immersed in the characters’ lives, to confront complexity and to feel empathy. These experiences deepen understanding.Have any recommendations for Book Fridge readers?Since we’ve been talking about women’s lives, Lisa Moore’s February, for the sheer beauty of its sentences, and Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore for its brilliant amalgam of tragedy and comedy (it is set on a barge anchored in the river Thames). Howard Norman’s compelling and remarkable The Bird Artist (set at a lighthouse), because it reads like myth. Richard Cumyn’s The Young in Their Country and Other Stories, because scarce as motherhood is in literature, the tender observation of a father-daughter relationship, as in the story “Speedwell,” is vanishingly rare. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, because it is great, and because it’s fascinating to see how much and how little women’s lives have changed since 1927.