Filler content with dynamite

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #34 back in 2003, with the omission of the final paragraphy which contained a pissy little swipe at a ‘celeb’ who had the temerity to blurb a book I didn’t like as much as he did (I’m fifteen years older and not quite as petty nowadays – in these twilight years of my life I probably wouldn’t be as pedantic about the book needing to have a point either):-

TIDELAND
Mitch Cullin
Weidenfeld & Nicolson pb, 192pp, £9.99

The narrator is eleven year old Jeliza-Rose, the daughter of a once famous guitarist who injected his success in an arm. When her mother dies of an overdose and drug dealers come wanting the money dad owes, the two of them flee LA and head for rural Texas, where they set up house in the old family homestead, a ramshackle and tumbledown building called What Rocks. Dad dies soon after, though Jeliza-Rose thinks he is only sleeping, leaving her alone with her collection of Barbie heads, Classique and Cut N Style, Fashion Jeans and Magic Curl. She roams the surrounding area, having all sorts of adventures and using her powerful imagination to reinvent the world. And she meets the neighbours, demented embalmer Dell and her brother Dickens, an epileptic with unspecified mental problems who keeps two sticks of dynamite under the bed. It’s a recipe for disaster and sure enough disaster is what we get.

The theme of children left to cope for themselves immediately brings to mind McEwan’s The Cement Garden, but this short novel is far lighter in tone by virtue of the narrator’s cheery obliviousness to so much of what is going on and ability to land on her feet no matter what. The writing is sparse and evocative, suggesting the power of imagination to make the intolerable not only bearable but actually appealing. While the rest of us may feel pity for Jeliza-Rose, she appears entirely happy with her lot. A particular delight are the conversations she with Classique and the rest of the Barbie gang, these disembodied heads becoming characters in their own right, each with its own telling traits.

And yet although I enjoyed the book I’m left wondering what was the point of it all. It starts, things happen, and then it stops, with an ending that is abrupt and contrived, leaving us no further forward. While Jeliza-Rose is a joy to know, none of the other characters is portrayed with much sympathy or feeling. Dell is the typical clichéd loner as loony and Dickens could pass muster as poster boy for people campaigning against care in the community. What exactly is Tideland trying to tell us? That drugs can screw you up and imagination can be a wonderful thing? Or, more appositely, never let a mentally handicapped person play with dynamite? These all seem pretty obvious truths, banal even, so why bother?

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