The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch

17/09/05, The Times

It seems that North American fiction writers are returning to Nature. They’ve always had it in them – the big, open spaces, the dizzying sense of place, the vast canvas of the works that mirror the physical reality outside – but there has been a recent rediscovery and re-acquaintance. Jim Lynch joins Anthony Doerr and E. Annie Proulx, writers whose luminous observations and rapt recordings of Nature investigate a rather different dynamics altogether, that of humans in a far larger context, measured against forces which are infinitely overpowering and infinitely indifferent.

But Lynch’s first novel, The Highest Tide, featuring a diminutive thirteen-year old narrator-hero, Miles O’Malley, falls into the same trap as the rash of recent novels with child-narrators (The Lovely Bones, The History of Love, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) have so perilously done: cutesiness and a deeply unconvincing faux-naïf confection of childhood masquerading as the real thing yet so unconvinced itself of its own posturing that it resorts to tricks of tone, style and narration. Mercifully, no such tricks are in evidence here. Instead, he gives us a straightforward, if unoriginal, story of growing up and its obligatory attendant pains and pitfalls. Two things distinguish the book: one, its unusual setting on the tidal flats of Puget Sound in northern Washington; secondly, the clarity and precision of Lynch’s prose.

Miles is another precocious child-narrator. Significantly undersized for his age, he is often mistaken for a ten-year-old. His great gift is of observation of marine life in the tidal flats where he lives. While his friend Phelps smokes his mother’s Kents, plays the air guitar and obsesses about sex and women’s breasts, Miles, a type of beguiling geek whose hero is Rachel Carson and who has read everything about marine biology that he can lay his hands on, roams the flats during low-tide, collecting clams and geoducks and observing the miraculous wonder of ocean life unfurl in front of him. His is informed wonder, though: this boy knows the difference between Moroteuthis and Architeuthis and the spawning habits of butterfly squid. When he discovers that rarest creature of the deep, a giant squid, first television crew, then religious cults and finally an entire media circus invade his hitherto unknown corner of the world. With each of Miles’s sighting of another rare creature – ragfish, oarfish – his celebrity grows, till everyone is convinced the ocean is trying to tell humans something through this boy. New age and mumbo-jumbo practitioners descend on Olympia in hordes. Meanwhile, Miles struggles with his dismay at his parents’ imploding marriage, his excruciating desire for the bipolar Angie Stegner, his ex-babysitter, and the dilemna of what to do for his best friend, the old, Parkinsons-afflicted Florence who is also a part-time clairvoyant.

Easily, the most characteristic thing in this novel is Lynch’s style: poetic yet lean, restrained, lucid and radiant. The metaphors are sharp and newly minted, and the beautifully observed and described details of marine life suffused with a Wordsworthian sense of wonder. This almost saves an otherwise hackneyed, undemanding but good-natured coming of age story spliced with Marine Life 101. Lynch valiantly struggles to breathe life into the sub-plots and human relationships but loses his way halfway in as the originality of its marine biology becomes overworked and the dead hand of cutesiness descends. It is an undeniably charming and beguiling book, but inconsequential and repetitive. Perhaps a charitable way of interpreting it would be to see it as American fiction’s answer to the drivel and claptrap of creationism and intelligent design theory sweeping darkly through swathes of the country.