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Issue 41, July-September 2013
Prime Number Magazine is a publication of Press 53, PO Box 30314, Winston-Salem, NC 27130
​Jen Michalski's The Tide King, reviewed by Curtis Smith

Jen Michalski 
The Tide King 
Westland: Black Lawrence Press, 2013
Paperback: $18.00
Our lives are dictated by tides. Days. Seasons. Years. The tides of youth, adulthood, old age. There are man-made tides: the currents of nations and their often-cruel histories. Balancing these are the internal tides that are ours alone: tides of individual awareness, tides of our struggles and our loves. These individual tides, while powerless against the world’s greater forces, are uniquely ours, our only toehold in the greater landscape of our days. We fight. We learn. We gain and lose . . . until our time comes and we are consumed by the greater current. But what if we could step outside the tide? What if we could be released from the limitations of flesh and float on forever? What would that mean to us, to our views of our world and ourselves? 

In her deeply involving new novel, The Tide King, Jen Michalski takes these questions and frames them in a story that makes us reconsider the most basic of tides and asks the question—if you could, would you want to live forever? Perhaps one would offer a reflexive Yes simply to avoid the pain and uncertainty of death, but Michalski goes beyond and illustrates a more complete portrait of what might happen to a soul adrift in time’s endless sea. A magic root travels across centuries and continents, and it allows those who ingest it not only eternal life, but also the powers of physical regeneration. Time passes, loved ones die, and, as they do, Michalski’s survivors become ghost-like, trapped by a history that refuses to claim them, a history always new but with repeating motifs of man’s search for love and his capabilities for horror and brutality.

The best of books challenge us to reexamine our beliefs. As I read The Tide King, I found myself reconsidering death, thinking of it not in the simple terms of negation and loss, but as an integral—and even welcome—function of life. In my own work, I often address matters relating to death, but The Tide King brings a new perspective, and I envision death not as a period or destination but as a sounding board. Death echoes our voices and heartbeats, the sound evermore distinct as we near. But without death, the sounds we make would simply radiate and fade into the void. One would be left empty and cold, abandoned in a life that might very well feel like one’s current notions of death. 

Magic roots? Lives without end? Regeneration and resurrection? Perhaps these aren’t the elements one expects to encounter in a literary novel, yet Michalski deftly escorts us across this border. Yes, we encounter the supernatural, but the supernatural is merely a bridge that escorts her readers to larger, more resonate issues. We encounter longing and fear. We witness acts of compassion and savagery. We are transported to locales of beauty and danger. And given the context of character lost in time, these situations achieve a new aura, a rendering in a unique light, the characters’ sufferings suffusing into an eternity, their underlying emotions evolving into inescapable truths.

Michalski’s writing is crisp and assured, straightforward yet also lyrical. This style suits her well—a sure hand that smoothly shepherds us through the back and forth years. Consider this short section from the novel’s first page:

"Andrei turned his attention back to the road. The days and nights were separated by subtle gradation. Congested, industrial skies the color of bone and smoke bled into charcoal and faded into smoke and bone again. One found different ways of staying awake, of keeping the lines between them sharp, understandable." (1)

Here waits not only beautiful language, but through deft utilization of images, Michalski also sets up her readers for the story’s deeper focus of how the cycles of life bleed into one another. It’s a motif revisited often, subtle touches that strengthen the novel’s deeper currents. 

As a reader, I find myself drawn to the shape of fiction. Every story needs a vessel, and the structure of The Tide King is one of its strongest and most fascinating elements. The story weaves in and out of time, seemingly disparate narratives which in time come together, linking past, present, and future. At times, we are left guessing—only in the best of ways—as we are exposed to clues and hints of the larger picture waiting to unfold. There are “a-ha” moments when the elements click, realizations that are never forced or leave us scratching our heads. Like the tide itself, the ending returns us to the beginning, a deft bit of craft that reinforces the feel of the narrative.

The Tide King offers its readers a trip through time and soul. It’s a journey well worth the effort. 

Jen Michalski is the author of a collection of novellas from Dzanc Books; two collections of fiction, Close Encounters (So New, 2007) and From Here (Aqueous Books, 2013); and the editor of the anthology City Sages: Baltimore (CityLit Press 2010), which won a 2010 "Best of Baltimore" award from Baltimore Magazine. She is the founding editor of the literary quarterly jmww, a co-host of the monthly reading series The 510 Readings, and interviews writers at The Nervous Breakdown.

Curtis Smith is the author of the novels An Unadorned LifeSound and Noise, and Truth or Something Like It. His work has been named to the Best American Short Stories Distinguished Stories List, The Best American Mystery Stories Distinguished Stories List, and the Notable Writing List of The Best American Spiritual Writing.