On Monday, I posted a Meet the Writer feature with Jen Michalski in which she discussed her new novel. The book, The Summer She Was Under Water, was published yesterday, August 9th! Congrats, Jen! Be sure to sign up for her Goodreads giveaway for a chance to win a copy.
The Tide King by Jen Michalski
published by Black Lawrence Press, 2013
I start with my admissions: I wrote book reviews regularly for Jen Michalski at JMWW and I’ve reviewed her other works, the collection Close Encounters and, more recently, Could You Be With Her Now (two novellas in one book). Jen also hired me to coordinate a book blog tour of her collection, From Here. It’s always nice to help someone get the word on her book out — assuming the review is honest. I’m often attracted to other writers whom I’ve found are meticulous, hard-working, good at her craft, and can teach me something. Jen Michalski is one of those writers, which is why I had no concerns about taking on her first novel for review.
The Tide King begins with the most current date you will encounter, 1976. A man, woman, and girl get into a cab in Poland make the driver uncomfortable: why are these individuals unusual, their eyes and mannerisms not fitting for their bodies? The young man and woman are American, but the girl is Polish, and so he speaks to her in the language, asking if she will be alright.
Fall back to 1942 where we meet Stanley Polensky and Calvin Johnson, soldiers, and two of the main characters. We learn that Polensky’s mother has given him an herb that is said to protect the person who ingests it. He keeps it in his helmet, assuming his mother is just superstitious. After reading detailed battle scenes from World War II (impressive!), you will learn that Polensky uses the herb — but on who, or what? That is all I will tell you.
Go even further back to 1806 when we meet a girl, Ela, and her mother, whom are considered witches in their village of Reszel, Poland, because they make tinctures. They find an herb — burnette saxifrage — that grows in on land that has been struck by lightning. Through experiments with animals, the mother learns that the herb is special, causing the animals to repair even the worst of mutilation. Is this herb an elixir for immortality?
As you read, it becomes easy to discern who the man and little girl in the cab from the prologue are. But, Michalski keeps you guessing as to who the woman is. Several women are good candidates, making this novel part of many genres: mystery, war, romance, fairy tale, and — maybe? — Gothic.
Overall, the plot is an amazing feat of Michalski juggling characters, time periods, and languages — and she never drops a ball. The prologue, as I described, puts you at the end of the book, and the end of the book takes you back to the beginning. 1976 was a satisfying stopping point, but I can’t really convince you of that without evidence, which would blow some of the best plot points.
That’s just the thing! I am a verbal reader; I make a lot of sounds like, “Gah!” and “Duuuude!” and “Whhha?” when I get into a book. You see, these characters, especially the secondary, will bring you up and let you down. They were so… human /fickle /unpredictable! I wanted things to turn out like _________, but then the character would do something that really suited him/her, things I didn’t think Michalski would allow to happen, but she did! I tried to expect the characters to be unexpected — a mighty challenge that kept me reading way too late at night (something I haven’t done since my years with the Sweet Valley Twins in the early 90s).
Michalski gets readers thinking when she writers her characters before they are immortal. We can see ourselves on the pages, reflected in the choices the characters make regardless of the repercussions. Youth are easy to relate to, as they can ignore mortality:
He was young, and there wasn’t much to think about, in terms of consequences. He was young and didn’t know what lay ahead, which was the beauty of being young — so many risks taken before one has the sense to realize the dangers. He was young and going to fight [in World War II].
But what if you can live forever, as opposed to simply thinking you will because you’re young? Michalski tackles that question when she gives us truisms by which we may live. Or, we can dismiss them in favor of our own search for meaning in life. When you’re lonely finding a partner to fill the loneliness isn’t always the answer:
“I haven’t really met anyone here. But I have friends. I travel. I know that you don’t want to hear this, Heidi, particularly since you struggle with it so much yourself, but people are lonely a lot. Even if there is someone. There’s always a loneliness that people can’t fill, that pets can’t fill. And you have to make peace with it because you come into the world alone and you go out the same way.”
The sentences themselves, even when following male characters who were veterans (often stereotyped as macho), have a tender beauty. A character who lives forever describes what it means to find a woman with whom he fills a kinship:
She had grounded him. He didn’t feel essential to himself, even alive in a normal sense, but he felt tethered to Kate, her gravity keeping his moon rotating, surviving its long trip around the galaxy.
Michalski has a great talent for writing similes, comparisons that seem so fitting. A simple truck is compared to a beast, but it tells about the man who owns the truck, too: “In the vestibule, she saw her father’s truck through the front doors, its monstrous orange chassis shuddering, smoke pouring out of the damaged muffler like some ancient, grouchy dragon.” Imagine the father, who owns the truck: perhaps a broken-down (physically, mentally) man who smokes, who is unpleasant to be around.
The end of the novel, which gets you back to where you started, practically forces you to re-read that 1976 prologue to see what the man, woman, and little girl are like, now that you know who they are. But my fingers tried to trick me; I re-read the prologue and started to turn the next page to the first chapter again….
I want to thank you Jen Michalski for sending me this reviewer’s copy in exchange for an honest review.