‘High Tide’ by Inga Ābele (Review)

Today’s post features a review of another work of translated fiction from Open Letter (a publisher based at the University of Rochester, which is also behind the renowned Three Percent blog).  The writer is a fairly new name in translated fiction – and (excitingly) it’s another new country for me…

Inga Ābele’s High Tide (translated by Kaija Straumanis, e-copy courtesy of the publisher) is the story of Ieva, a single mother in the Latvian capital of Riga who is approaching middle age.  She’s a script-writer, one not in the best of spirits, and she has been deeply affected by the recent death of her grandmother.  However, there’s more to her story, much more – this will become clearer as we progress…

…or, more accurately expressed, regress…

The writer (as you might expect) takes the reader on a journey through Ieva’s life, but backwards.  As we meet the important people in her life – her gran, her mum and dad, her brother, Pāvils, and her daughter, Monta – things begin to take shape.  The story always returns to two other people though – her dead lover, Aksels, and her ex-husband Andrejs – two men forever linked by one woman and a fateful event.

Ābele’s novel looks at how life rarely unfolds the way we expect it to, even if it usually offers you things you never thought possible.  Is it worth it though?  Well:

“Like an Indian who gets glass beads in exchange for gold, you trade the suffering of existence in return for the smell of baking bread.  The feel of a dog’s wet nose against your hand.  The look in your children’s eyes.  A bird feeder.  May it all bring you joy, says this opposing, unwanted, huge opportunity – Life.”
p.8 (Open Letter, 2013)

I suppose though that life is what you make of it…

Ieva starts the novel jaded, cynical and world-weary, and the backwards path through her life allows the reader to see why she ended up where she did, with the reader seeing the results before the causes.  This can be confusing at times, as whenIeva returns to the prison to visit Andrejs time and time again, a little like a moth to the flame.  It takes us a long time to realise exactly why she does this…

Once you have an overview of the whole novel, it can be seen as a work (and life) in three parts, with Ieva’s life changed by two pivotal events: Aksel’s death and her final rejection of Andrejs.  Ieva passes from young love and freedom, through a miserable existence chained to a jailbird, followed by a life as an artist – although the novel’s structure turns that order on its head.  Are you still with me?

The strained relationships the main character has, both with the two men in her life and her parents, has a wearing-down effect on Ieva and causes a rift in her relationship with her daughter, Monta.  In fact, some of the more interesting parts of the book are when we see Ieva through the eyes of the other characters.  She’s a middle-aged woman sleeping around, working her way through… what exactly?  Grief? Trauma? Depression?

Of course, Ieva isn’t the only one struggling – it’s a bleak life, and it’s hard to be happy, so you snatch moments when and where you can.  Aksel seems to realise this best, letting go of his anger and trying to appreciate life outside prison, his returned, if monotonous, freedom:

“It’s his, Andrejs’s moment.  A moment of existence.  He’s gotten so good at capturing these moments over the past years.  He sniffs them out like a bloodhound, extracts them like a pearl diver and brings them to the surface of his consciousness, breaks and grinds them down like a nutcracker.  He’s almost happy, dammit – happy!” (p.54)

The three main characters have their own ideas on how to be happy though.  While Aksel prefers to go his own way, lost in punk music and drugs, Ieva escapes into a fantasy world of words.  For Andrejs, whose escape lies in hard work on the land, this choice of paper over trees is a suspicious one:

“Independence and betrayal.  The entire breed of book readers are traitors.  Because they use words however they see fit, and they’re as sly as foxes.  They’ll forever twist the world into something they like better.  Everyone else sees black, but they say it’s just the opposite of white.  Obviously you can say it like that too, but it will always be connected to a selfish purpose so tangled it’s sickening.” (p.64)

Yep – never trust a reader 😉

High Tide is beautifully written in parts, and the writer often plays with the imagery of tides, high and low, usually metaphorically.  In seizing opportunities when they come, the characters are battling through the tough, low-tide times, waiting for the tide to turn in their favour.  There’s also a tide-like contrast in the structure between frequent short sections, extended conversations and the few, pivotal, lengthy prose sections.  These long quasi-monologues (for example, a section at the start of the novel with Ieva and Andrejs at the flat) are long, pensive and elegantly written, and are probably the parts I enjoyed the most.

However, not all the writing is as good as in those long sections; some of the shorter parts were a little clumsy, especially in conversations.  Also, once the reader knows the full story, the book peters out a little, and the last few chapters didn’t really do much for me.  A life told backwards is a nice idea (c.f. Hitomi Kanehara’s Autofiction), but High Tide ends with a whimper more than a bang really…

I’m not sure it all comes together in the end, but Ābele does create some excellent scenes, and High Tide is definitely an interesting read.  In part, some of my misgivings might come from the e-format I was using, which is not ideal for this book – it would have been nice to flick back and forth to refresh my memory (not as easy as I’d like on my antiquated Kindle…).  Despite coming form the digital age, I think High Tide is a book which might best be enjoyed on paper 🙂

3 thoughts on “‘High Tide’ by Inga Ābele (Review)

  1. I just did a critique of the translation of this book for ALTA, and it is dreadful. Words are egregiously mistranslated, phrases are 'interpreted' rather than translated. The reason that “some of the shorter parts were a little clumsy, especially in conversations” is that dialogue is often embedded in text. Paragraph breaks do not follow the original – and if they're not going to, why not break up the voluminous blocks of text more? I don't believe an editor ever looked at this translation; Kaija Strautmanis apparently bought herself a job at Open Letters with the $7,000 she was paid for doing it. I have my doubts whether it was proofread either, or the style problems would have been caught.


  2. Inara – As I don't speak Latvian, I'm not going to argue about particular translations. In terms of how well it came over in English, I'd say it was an OK translation, nothing special, but not especially jarring either. However, claiming that the translator 'bought herself a job' is out of order, and I suggest you think carefully before throwing more statements like that around.


  3. I see no evidence that an editor ever looked at this manuscript, including to accept it for Open Letters. Kaija Straumanis doesn’t have the English skills to translate – she seems to think that translation is paraphrasing the original, without bothering to be accurate. She can’t have proofread her manuscript, or she would have caught at least some of the mistakes and words left out. What qualifications can she have to be editor? If she brought this book over to Open Letters and said hey, I have $7,000 to support publishing this book but I want to be editor, it’s actually self-published.


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