Summer in Nice on the Côte d’Azur. After a blistering two months without rain there’s a violent storm. Chantal abandons herself to the torrential rain and wades into the sea, “it’s pure joy to be swimming in both sea and rain at once, the rain falling in sheets, drenching my head.” She acquired an obsession with the sea from her mother whom she sees in her mind’s eye, “swimming, alone, unreachable, a minuscule speck against the blue immensity, an almost imperceptible dot, except in my own memory.”
In elegant, lyrical, sensual prose, Chantal Thomas honours her unfathomable mother, Jackie, by means of a series of impressionistic scenes and illuminating moments. A family story exemplifies Jackie’s carefree nature: on a whim, as a young woman, she cycles past the “the sparkling plane of water” of the Grand Canal in the gardens of Versailles where a drowned Louis XIV Venetian gondola “lay rotting in the silt.” She jumps in, and swims a beautiful, rhythmic crawl.
Gradually we get an image of a free spirit and a keen athlete who was snared by marriage and trapped by domestic life, leading to depression. Briefly a legal secretary, Jackie had met and married Armand Thomas, a graphic artist who was a messenger for the Resistance around Lyon. A taciturn man, “he took no pride in this war, the Second World War. It had the bitter aftertaste of a defeat poorly disguised as a victory.”
Chantal grows up in Arcachon on the Atlantic coast of France, chosen by her maternal grandparents “because of its air and specifically its effects on the lungs because as a result of the 1914-18 war, my grandfather suffered from respiratory problems.” The seaside resort which is popular with French holidaymakers is famous for its beautiful beaches, pine forests, oysters, romantic nineteenth-century villas, and the Dune du Pilat, Europe’s largest sand dune.
“Colette wrote about Sido, her mother, that she had two faces: her home face, sad, and her garden face, beaming. My mother, likewise, had two faces: her home face, sad, and her swimming face, radiant.”
The beach, ideally located at the end of her street, becomes little Chantal’s home from home. Crawling from tent to tent, her blue eyes are wide open to the world around her. She paddles in tide pools and has fun with sandcastles alongside the other “children of the beach”. The “children from elsewhere” who arrive en masse during the long French summer holidays are pale, burn easily, and are generally avoided. The little girl discovers the magic of the passing the seasons, the lemon yellow butterflies in the garden signifying the end of winter, the one real measure of time which is the low tide that enlarges the beach, and the freedom to run, shout, laugh and cry. She collects starfish and seahorses with her best friend, Lucile, and they tell each other fantastical stories about magical underwater kingdoms.
“Happiness comes from the sea. It dances in the movement of the waves, is renewed in their constant motion.”
When she is widowed, Jackie swaps Arcachon for the southern luxuriance of Menton, with its bay and its hills, on the border with Italy. She now swims in the translucent green-blue Mediterranean at Cap Martin or Villefranche-sur-Mer. She is flirtatious and takes up internet dating.
Chantal becomes a teacher in a language school teaching French to businessmen on the 67th floor of the World Trade Centre in New York. Mother and daughter communicate via postcards. However it is their shared love of the sea that remains their strongest bond: swimming is a way to be free.
“The crawl is not only the fastest stroke but the one that reveals the human body in all its reptilian beauty . . . Unlike diving which is like swimming in the sky, the crawl is in harmony with the water.”
Mother-daughter relationships are complicated and multi-layered, and their significance and impact do not stop when girls grow up. The source of rich material for novels, films, TV dramas, and advice columns, mothers and daughters with good relationships are envied, while toxic relationships are fascinating to many. Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, Virginia Ironside’s Janey and Me, and Elisa Segrave’s The Girl from Station X are of the latter variety. While Chantal Thomas pays homage to her mother and the call of the open sea with balanced, affectionate, forbearing understanding. Her wistful patchwork of memories is fresh in its immediacy. A hymn to the beauty and power of nature, Memories of Low Tide is beautifully translated by Natasha Lehrer, a skilled and highly talented arrival on the translation scene. An indelible memoir that is an original, intricate and melodic work of literature, Memories of Low Tide offers an ideal, dreamy antidote to grey February days.
An historian and the author of fifteen books, Chantal Thomas is a renowned specialist in the 18th century and has written essay about Marie-Antoinette, Casanova, Sade, Thomas Bernhard and Roland Barthes. Farewell to the Queen received the Prix Fémina in 2002, and was adapted into film (2012) starring Diane Kruger and Léa Seydoux. Director of research at the CNRS, she is a member of the Jury of the Prix Fémina.
Memories of Low Tide by Chantal Thomas Translated from the French by Natasha Lehrer | Pushkin Press | HB 240pp | 27 June 2019 | ISBN: 9781782275190
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