Review of The Tide King by Jen Michalski
Black Lawrence Press
Reviewed by Natalie Sypolt
About Natalie Sypolt
Natalie Sypolt lives and writes in West Virginia. She received an MFA in fiction from West Virginia University and currently teaches creative writing, literature, and composition. Her fiction and book reviews have appeared in Glimmer Train, Switchback, r.kv.r.y., Ardor Literary Magazine, Superstition Review, Paste, Willow Springs Review, and The Kenyon Review Online, among others. Natalie is the winner of the Glimmer Train New Writers Contest and the Betty Gabehart Prize. She also serves as a literary editor for the Anthology of Appalachian Writers and is co-host of SummerBooks, a literary podcast.
Most of people spend their lives trying to figure out how to stay alive, how to squeeze every last drop out lives that seem all too short. It’s hard to imagine a lifetime that grows too long, and people who resent their inability to die. This is a central theme in Jen Michalski’s The Tide King, winner of The Big Moose Prize from Black Lawrence Press, which also investigates love, loss, and what it means to be human.
When Ela was a little girl in Poland, she and her mother made “tinctures”, herbal remedies that they sold to the townspeople. In her ninth year, just as a revolution was coming through Ela’s small town, she and her mother found a patch of burnette saxifrage, “burned to black chalk by a lightning strike.” After some careful experimentation, Ela’s mother realized that the special plant had the ability to heal and, as we learn later, to grant anyone who ingests it immortality. Is this a gift or a curse? What might first seem like the answer to humanity’s most basic fear—the fear of death—turns out to be a true torture for those who lose their right to live out a life.
In turns magical and starkly realistic, The Tide King takes the reader on a journey from 1806, through the Second World War, and up to 1976. We follow Ela, forever trapped in a nine year old body; Calvin Johnson, who was force-fed the herb by Stanley Polenski after Johnson was fatally wounded in Germany; and eventually Heidi, Stanley’s daughter. The broken chronology and shifting narration of this novel give us a full understanding of how lives that seem so far apart are destined to travel back together, and collide in unexpected ways. It is exciting to watch each character’s quest to find love, acceptance, and peace.
Perhaps this is a story that sounds familiar. True, the “curse of immortality” has been explored in literature and film before now; however, Michalski’s unique take on the world makes this story feel fresh and exciting. Not only does this writer have extreme skill with descriptions and details, the eccentric cast of characters that surround the central figures are interesting in their own right, and never just “supporting acts”. Most notable are Cindy (mother of Heidi, prostitute turned country music star) and Maggie, the woods-woman who nursed Calvin back to health after his second non-death during a fire in Montana. While these women are only peripheral characters in the novel, they allow the reader a view into the world of Michalski’s quirky imagination, while also showing us how, regardless of their own mortality, every person must confront the balancing act of relationships and loneliness.
Michalski does not shy away from the uncomfortable. When Ela, who will forever look like a child, but no longer thinks like a child, talks about her sexual feelings towards adult men the reader might initially feel put off. Children and sexuality is a taboo conversation that we typically try to avoid; however, once we push past the uncomfortable, the sadness and frustration of Ela’s situation becomes clear. Similarly, when Calvin seeks out Kate to reignite the relationship they’d had when they were both twenty-two, he finds her older, married, and dying of cancer. In spite of his own ethical conflicts, he begins a relationship with Kate, who is now thirty or so years his senior. In the hands of a less capable writer, the reader might object to these unconventional story lines; however, Michalski handles them with great empathy and grace. We are left no choice but the embrace the fallibility of the protagonists and root for their successes.
If fragility is a crucial part of what makes us human, what are we when that fragility is gone? Throughout the novel, Calvin struggles with the question, and with the way his belief system must be reshaped: “He was not normal. He had been a Christian in the traditional American sense...There would be nothing in his parent’s Bible-theirs or anyone else’s-that would explain him. And if God did not allow him to exist, then God could not exist for him, either.” If there are no ultimate consequences for behavior, then what prevents men from turning into beasts? It’s an eternal question, an eternal fear.
Ultimately, what these characters begin to realize is that it is not someone’s ability to die that makes them human. It is the ability to love, the ability to sacrifice personal comfort and safety for someone else, the willingness to do this again and again even though we know how much it will hurt—physically, mentally, emotionally—in the end. This is at the heart of humanity. To Calvin, mortality is a gift; immortality a curse. He thinks, “They walked through him, their orbits collapsing into his, and he would always know their pains and joys. The solace of humanity is that pain is temporary. There is always death.”
The Tide King is a complex book that examines both the evils that people can do to one another, as well as the beauty that is possible. In these pages, the reader is asked to consider all the things that make us uncomfortable-war, sickness, suffering, and death-but we’re also treated at the end to hope. Hope, along with love, is perhaps what truly keeps one’s humanity intact. In the final pages of the novel, we circle back around to where we started: the three odd travelers—Ela, Calvin, and Heidi—arriving in Poland, each still with their own quest to fulfill. Ela is hoping for a cure to her immortality, and perhaps Calvin is too, though he seems in less a hurry. Heidi wants just to be loved. Most importantly, they’ve found one another, and perhaps that’s the most anyone can ask. Immediately after Heidi makes a crucial decision that will forever change her life—the decision to ingest the last bit of the saxifrage, Calvin cries and understands the complicated truth. They were, “Each cursed, all of them cursed. All of them the luckiest people in the world to have known each other, a day or for forever.”