One From the Archive: ‘Secrets of the Tides’ by Hannah Richell ****

First published in May 2012.

Secrets of the Tides is Hannah Richell’s debut novel. It begins with a gripping prologue where an unnamed character launches herself into the Thames from a bridge. We do not know who she is, but her story and the reasons for it become apparent as the novel progresses.

Chapter one then moves to the present day. The character of Dora Tide is introduced, a young woman living in a flat in Hackney with her boyfriend Dan, an artist. The couple have recently found out that she is expecting a baby, a fact which Dora is increasingly unsure about. She feels incredibly guilty about the way in which her family has been ‘torn apart so completely’, a foreshadowing of a pivotal event in the lives of the Tides which the reader knows nothing about at first.

Chapter two then goes back sixteen years in time and focuses on Helen, Dora’s mother. Her sister Cassie, eleven years old when she is first introduced, is concentrated upon before Richell presents Richard, the father of the Tide girls. This past perspective sees Helen and Richard taking the girls to Clifftops to spend Easter with Richard’s parents, a family tradition.

Richard’s parents, Alfred and Daphne, reside at the romantically named Clifftops, a sprawling house set in the Dorset countryside. Clifftops was Richard’s own childhood home and he and his daughters adore spending time there. In comparison, Helen has a rather tempestuous relationship with Richard’s mother, a difficult woman who overrules the decisions which Helen makes regarding her children. Daphne seems to delight in undermining her daughter-in-law, causing Helen to feel like an insignificant cog in the wheel of the Tide family.

When Daphne and Alfred are killed in a car accident, the Tide family is prompted to move down to Dorset and call Clifftops their new home. Among other things, this move causes Cassie and Dora to grow closer together in some ways and further apart in others. Once they are settled in their new lives, one late summer day tears their entire world apart, fracturing the Tides irreversibly. Loss, grief and sadness are then woven throughout the book.

Richell portrays the family dynamic incredibly well. Flashbacks to earlier periods are woven throughout the story. The use of different time frames captured in the narrative adds another dimension to the story, allowing the reader to understand the complexities of the characters. As the title suggests, the Tide family is fraught with a wealth of secrets, all of which become apparent as the storyline unfolds.

A third person narrative perspective is used throughout, allowing Richell to focus on each character in turn. As their lives are all intrinsically linked, both by familial ties and events which occur throughout the book, this is a technique which works very well. Richell’s dialogue is a definite strength in the novel, and exchanges between her characters are reminiscent of real-life conversations.

The absorbing prose really helps the reader to understand the characters from the outset. So many details have been used to build up realistic personalities, particularly where Dora is concerned. Richell’s descriptions work well. They are informative and written ably, but in no way do they seem overdone.

Secrets of the Tides is an impressive debut and an engrossing novel. It is a sensitively written account which portrays the sheer complexities of one family as they grow and develop. The story itself is sad and unsettling in places. The characters grow, both physically and emotionally, both towards one another and apart. The unexpected twists and turns throughout make Secrets of the Tides one of the must-read debut novels of 2012.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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