When I saw that Tideline by Penny Hancock was set in Greenwich in south east London, I knew I had to read it because it was set very near to where I grew up. I was not disappointed! The story follows Sonia, a woman in her 40s who invites Jez, her friend’s 15 year-old nephew, into her house to borrow a CD, then gets him so drunk that he has to stay the night. It soon becomes clear that she has no intention of letting him go, at least not for a while.
Sonia is clearly unhappy and lonely, but she is also psychologically damaged. The narrative flips back and forth between past and present. Sonia’s present day life involves a cantankerous elderly mother, widowed after Sonia’s father took his own life; a less than happy marriage to a frequently absent husband, and bittersweet memories of an intense and slightly masochistic adolescent relationship with the beautiful and exciting Seb, who Sonia loved and lost. As the narrative unfolds, we see the impact that the past has had on the present, and we begin to understand why Sonia finds it so difficult to give Jez up.
Sonia is the central character, but we also hear from her friend Helen, Jez’s aunt. Helen’s troubled marriage, her difficult and competitive relationship with her sister, and her increasing dependence on alcohol are well drawn and engaging. Jez is staying with Helen when he disappears, and it is his disappearance that exposes the many cracks in Helen’s life. Her relationship with her sister, Maria, is particularly well-drawn, with each sister criticising the other’s parenting, and each blaming the other for Jez’s disappearance.
Sonia lives in the River House, so close to the Thames that she can smell the river’s smells and hear its swirling waters beneath her windows. Penny Hancock creates a wonderful sense of place in this novel, and the river in particular is described vividly, especially in the flashback sections. I grew up not far from Greenwich, and spent quite a lot of time hanging around these areas as a teenager in the seventies – I can vouch for the accuracy of the descriptions of the filthy, chemical soup that was the Thames in those days, the brownish colour, the oiliness, the frothy yellow scum that floated on its surface, the rubbish it carried and deposited on its shores. The river is itself a beautifully evoked character in this novel, and its treachery and danger reflects the treachery and danger in the relationships of the characters.
This is a wonderfully dark and suspenseful novel with engaging characters, a page-turning plot and a couple of unexpected and satisfying twists at the end. One reviewer observed, ‘There are hints of a young Daphne du Maurier in Hancock’s cool, evocative prose’. I usually scoff at such claims, but for once I wholeheartedly agree. The writing is assured and the story atmospheric and haunting. I suspect Tideline will stay with me for a long time!
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