...a subtle, literary two-hander about a 40-year-old woman who is drawn into an intense relationship with an older American architect... There are several things to enjoy in Dymott’s novel, not least her swift, knowing prose about London life and its bourgeois pleasures... If Dymott intended this to be a story about self-deception, she doesn’t flag it early enough. If it’s a send up of an entitled man-child, it should be more wry. Instead, Elizabeth seems mildly perplexed that she fell under Robert’s sway. For a novelist, she’s curiously unperceptive.
Slack-Tide does not bill itself as autofiction, but it certainly reads as such. The publishers recommend the book to “fans of Rachel Cusk, Ben Lerner and Maggie O’Farrell”, all novelists known for their autobiographical writing. Reading Elizabeth’s biography against Elanor’s throws up uncanny similarities. On the train down to another coercively attended event – this time in Cornwall – Robert is described reading “a novel by our middle-aged male host-to-be, about a middle-aged male novelist’s midlife crisis”. If we can’t say that Slack-Tide is autobiographical, we can certainly say that it is a novel written by a middle-aged female novelist, about a middle-aged female novelist.
Given that we know how things work out, it’s the why that keeps us reading; the shifting, inconclusive answers to that question make this a far stranger and more compelling novel than it might initially seem. This is also a book with an intense awareness of the material of everyday life: Dymott demonstrates beautifully how close attention paid to the description of the seemingly incidental objects that surround a character can bring them to life in a vivid and memorable way.
Dymott’s rendering of Robert verges on caricature and her prose often lacks lyricism, in particular during the many sex scenes (“I’m so wet you can swim in me,” says Elizabeth to Robert, while she watches him pump up bicycle tyres). Some passages, such as a powerful flashback to when Elizabeth’s dead baby was removed from her womb in hospital, are compelling enough to make it seem as though Slack-Tide is heading somewhere substantial. Much like Elizabeth and Robert’s relationship, though, the book’s promise of profundity never fully materialises.
What traps Elizabeth, and forms the body of this psychologically intelligent study, is the difficulty of assessing when to compromise, when not to, and when to use her own past as context, especially amid her intense desire to conceive again versus Robert’s reluctance. “I wondered then how many relationships were structured in this way, so that people everywhere were doing what Robert had done, and making a life alongside another person without much minding who they were, as long as they filled a gap which would otherwise be empty.” In raising such confronting and introspective questions, Dymott’s slim little novel packs a very precise punch.