Greenwich & the River Thames play a key role in this atmospheric thriller about a woman’s obsession with the past

  • Book: Tideline
  • Location: London
  • Author: Penny Hancock

Location

Content

Set in Greenwich, at the darkest end of Winter, when spring seems to be so close and yet so far away, Sonia’s life is unravelling around her. Her daughter is happily ensconced at University, and her husband is pushing to put their home – The River House where she grew up and has lived for most of her married life – on the market. Her mother, increasingly cantankerous and demanding, is deteriorating in sheltered accommodation, and she is increasingly isolated from women her own age – and indeed from the word at large, revelling in her own company and that of the clients (client?) of her voice coach business.

The location of the story is key – Sonia has lived most of her life at The River House, and as the story of her childhood unfolds, it is clear that the River Thames and all its secrets, is very special to her. Ultimately, both the stories of her past and her present end there. Hancock uses the landmarks of Greenwich, and that part of the Thames, to good effect in the story – the foot tunnel where Jez fails to rendezvous with his girlfriend that first night, the market, the Cutty Sark. This is no guide to Greenwich, but the area plays its part in the novel adding another layer to the tale.

Into Sonia’s twilight world walks Jez, the nephew of an acquaintance, coming to borrow an LP of her husband’s. Beautiful, confident, essentially teenaged boy, Jez reawakens memories and feelings that have clearly not been too far from Sonia’s fragile surface, and the cracks come increasingly fast and deep. Jez accepts Sonia’s offer of a glass of wine – it is a measure of how jolted she is that she opens a bottle laid down years previously for her daughter’s forthcoming 21st birthday. – but as the evening progresses, it becomes clear that Sonia has no intention of letting him go easily.

The story moves from the present to the Greenwich of the past, to the period of her life when Sonia was happiest, with her beloved Seb, and back again. All the while, the River Thames ebbs and flows through the story, to its shocking climax.

The fact that it is a woman perpetrating the abduction of Jez perhaps makes the tale perhaps more unsettling. We expect such behaviour of a man – far less so than a middle class woman from a comfortable background. Perhaps it is easier to put her actions down to breakdown (or at the very least, to the stresses of her life as it has become) – the act of a mad woman rather than a bad woman. As the events of the past spill over into Sonia’s present, I felt that Penny Hancock was excusing Sonia’s actions as a reaction to the trauma she suffered in her childhood. I was certainly convinced that Sonia was simply not capable of stopping herself – her actions were not pre-meditated or the product of a rational person.

If I’m going to be critical, there were a few parts of the plot that are a little bit short on detail. The eventual discovery of Sonia and her crime is a little tenuous, and I would have liked to know a little more about Sonia’s early relationship with her husband, Greg, and her relationship with her father. There are hints of parental expectation and a certain amount of coercion in the marriage, which is evident in the Greg of the present who consults behind Sonia’s back with her mother, conspiring in selling The River House.

However, overall, I loved Tideline. It is an atmospheric thriller – the tension builds skilfully and gently and the few real acts of violence (both in the past and the present) are all the more shocking for it. I was gripped very quickly, and couldn’t put the book down – lucky that we were on holiday, and I managed to sneak in some quality reading hours. As Sonia’s obsession with keeping Jez grows, so her existence starts to crumble – she misses a visit to her mother, puts off clients and ends up as the unlikely confidante of Helen, Jez’s aunt, herself suffering from demons past (an affair) and present – her nascent alcoholism – who finds herself as the prime suspect in the disappearance of her nephew. In all this, I found myself desperate to find out what would happen – not just in the end, but in the the next steps of Sonia’s path, and to discover the secrets of the past, that Hancock so skilfully reveals.

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