Simon & Schuster | 2019 (20 August) | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is Midsummer’s Eve, 1648, in the Sussex tidelands, when Alinor, a descendent of wise women, waits in Fairmile’s graveyard for the ghost of her abusive husband, presumed lost at sea, to appear to declare her free. But it’s not a ghost that she comes across but James, a young priest just arrived from the court of the exiled Queen. Charles I is imprisoned on the Isle of Wight, the Civil War is over. But, whereas this is a cause for relief among the villagers of the tidelands, it’s a matter of grief for the idealist priest and he is here on secret, dangerous business. It’s perilous enough in these Cromwellian days for wise women such as Alinor but James is about to make it a whole lot worse.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Tidelands. I’ve loved some of Philippa Gregory’s novels very much and struggled with others. This one, set in a different period for the author and largely away from the courts of kings and queens, was a mystery to me when I first opened the pages. It captivated me instantly, right from the opening pages when we first meet the extraordinary Alinor and find ourselves in the tidelands.
Philippa Gregory is to be applauded for her depiction of the tidelands of Sussex and of the daily lives of the people, largely poverty-stricken, who endure it and have to scrape a living from this most inhospitable and yet hauntingly beautiful environment. This is a place of disease, hunger, jealousy and superstition, of mud floors, scraps of clothing, and endless terrible toil in someone else’s fields or out on the water or in the mud. It feels timeless and you can feel it all around you. It pulls you in.
This lovely, descriptive prose is full of historical details about daily life. The scenes describing the harvest are completely engrossing, as women line up to walk the harvested field and glean it clean. Alinor is such a fascinating character. She’s beautiful but quiet, abused but staggeringly strong, both physically and mentally. With two fatherless children to care for and provide for, Alinor has to be strong. And we are astonished to see how her day of toil is divided, with one hard physical job following another.
So the contrast with the priest and his world is immense. Alinor’s brother hates the King. He proudly fought against him and would do so again. The reality of civil war has hit this remote community. But James does not see the King in this way and it’s in James’s company that we’re taken into the captivity of Charles I. It’s easy to feel the fury of the populace for an arrogant man such as this, who caused such blood to be shed. But we also witness him as a figurehead, as God’s annointed. James learns conflict as he finds himself newly rooted in the reality of life in the tidelands, lived on the land, at sea and in the mud.
James is a particularly intriguing character, trying to bridge two worlds, two ideologies. He is most definitely not the romantic hero that you’d expect from the novel’s opening. This is one of the many reasons why I loved this novel. There are surprises but life is also squarely embedded in the mud, in the sea and in the land, not in palaces.
As the book’s description suggests, we’re placed in a society in which suspected witches are discovered, tortured, drowned and killed. I’m pleased to say that this storyline, so overdone now in my opinion, isn’t as prevalent as I’d feared. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the novel’s ending (or Alinor’s daughter’s decisions) but what mattered to me is the journey that takes us to this point – the slow meander through these people’s lives, interspersed with glittering moments in the presence of a delusional king.
I believe that Tidelands is the first of a new series, The Fairmile. This is such good news. If its succeeding novels are half as good as its first then we are in for such a treat.