Tide Road is Valerie Compton’s first novel, but she has been writing short fiction for 20 years and has been shortlisted twice for the CBC Literary Awards. Her writing is confident, complex, and mature. Her narrative shifts between the past and present of her protagonist, Sonia, parcelling out the truth in bits and pieces.
In her youth, Sonia was the earnest and energetic daughter of a lighthouse keeper. She kept the log books, tended the light, and nurtured her artistic aspirations. She was competent, talented, and had the world at her feet. The older Sonia is a woman who has lied to herself for most of her adult life. Her first-born daughter is missing, probably murdered, and Sonia blames herself for what she assumes was her role in her daughter’s tragic fate.
Compton paints a vivid picture of life on Prince Edward Island, especially in the pre-war years. Young Sonia’s life is marked by long tramps across the tide road to visit neighbours for tea and fresh vegetables, seasonal deliveries of supplies, and whispers of U-boat sightings. Her later life, caught up in mourning her missing daughter, is charged with profound regret from which she seems unable to escape.
It would have been easy for Compton to render the elder Sonia pathetic and blameworthy, but she somehow remains sympathetic. The reader wants her to regain some connection with her younger self, with the way she was before tragedy befell her. For her part, Compton refuses to portray her protagonist as a one-dimensional woman wallowing in self-pity, but rather offers a nuanced portrait of a strong character facing up to her most painful experiences and accepting responsibility for her own failures. It’s a stark and beautiful story.