Inga Ābele’s High Tide, which I read in Kaija Straumanis’s translation from the original Latvian Paisums, is one of those complex-feeling books with a complex-looking structure that turns out to be fairly simple at its core. High Tide is “about” (it feels particularly odd to say that about a book like this) all the big stuff: love, death, family relationships, and societal change… and ways to recover from—or at least deal with—all of the above.
Which isn’t to say I’m exactly sure what I read: the back cover blurb of High Tide tells me it’s written in “more or less reverse chronological order,” which feels about right, but the novel is so poetic and abstract in some ways (especially in the beginning) and so up-closely brutal (at times) in telling stories from the life of its main character, Ieva, that High Tide left me, to borrow more metaphors from the ocean, feeling like I was sitting on a narrow beach with waves encroaching. I do like the beach at high tide even if low tide feels more comfortable. There’s more space. But it’s less interesting.
Some of the waves in High Tide are pretty big: Ieva comes of age in the late eighties, when the Soviet Union was collapsing, and she’s a teenage mother whose husband, Andrejs, doesn’t share her interest in books. He does, though, come to enjoy Greek mythology in prison, preferring it to Christianity because you get to keep your guilt. (I loved this...) That prison term, by the way, is for shooting Ieva’s boyfriend, Aksels, dead. That’s the basic story—well, that along with Ieva’s distant relationships with her daughter, her mother, and, to a lesser degree, her grandmother—so you may be relieved to know Ieva does okay for herself in the end. Which the beginning of the book.
Ābele’s structure for High Tide means the book reads almost like a mystery: thematically, the reader wants to find out what happened to make Ieva who she is, and the structure is mysterious, too, because Ābele works in so many different kinds of chapters, including letters and naked dialogue. Some chapters are closely told, others not so much, but everything falls together to fill in events over the years. To paraphrase what Kaija writes in a Goodreads description, the novel is divided into sections of varying length that are assembled in a “smoothly chaotic (not unlike the tide, hmm?) structure.” In any case, the book is thoroughly absorbing, whether showing Andrejs’s post-prison romance, Ieva traveling to a conference, or terminal illness. There are just enough Latvian details to keep the setting clear but not so many that they become overbearing.
I don’t often comment at length on translations themselves but, after endless (in a good way) conversations and articles this summer about translation, I want to say I think Kaija’s High Tide reads beautifully—it’s smooth in all the right ways—and doesn’t belabor local or post-Soviet details. Sometimes it’s individual words I remember about translations… and one word that stood out for me in High Tide was “pleather,” probably because there are several Russian words for fake leather materials that cover apartment doors, get made into boots, and spawn inordinate amounts of discussion about Russian-English translation. I don’t know what the Latvian is in High Tide but was happy to see Kaija just go for pleather, a fairly new word (1982, per the good people of Merriam-Webster) that would feel too contemporary for lots of books but fits perfectly here and doesn’t break the narrative voice.
Disclaimers: I received a review copy of High Tide from Open Letter Books, thank you! High Tide is due out later this month. I always enjoy speaking with Open Letter, including Kaija, who is editorial director, about books and translations.
Up next: Jáchym Topol’s diabolically ghoulish The Devil’s Workshop, Rose Macaulay’s quirky The Towers of Trebizond, and MacDonald Harris’s comically metaphysical (so far anyway) The Carp Castle.