Emily has landed her dream job at The Parchment Press and is eager to create a good impression by handling the commission of a biography of late novelist Hugh Morton. Parchment Press acquired Hugh Morton’s publisher’s archive of correspondence and press cuttings. Emily’s main concern is teasing out Hugh Morton’s real story and ensuring the biographer is not overwhelmed by the over-protective widow, Jacqueline Morton. The widow is so determined to control Hugh Morton’s reputation that Emily doesn’t initially learn that he had a first wife, Isabel, who apparently died in the floods of 1953.
Isabel’s story is told in parallel to Emily’s. Isabel left her shell-shocked father, harassed mother and younger siblings to move to the city. Lodging with her aunt, she meets a poet who introduces her to Stephen McKinnon through whom Isabel gets a job at McKinnon and Holt who publish Hugh Morton. Isabel earns Hugh’s trust by editing his first book and suggesting ways of making his female characters more credible. By the time he’s ready to start his second novel, it’s clear Hugh values more than just Isabel’s editing skills. Stephen warns her off without saying why, so Isabel ignores him and starts dating Hugh. Hugh’s friend, Jacqueline, is married to an army officer and often alone as he’s posted abroad. Jacqueline doesn’t conceal her admiration for Hugh. Shortly after marriage, Isabel finds herself pregnant. Initially she resents it as she knows she’ll have to cave into pressure, largely from Hugh’s mother and more traditionally-minded friends, to give up her job. Lorna arrives and Isabel’s post-natal depression seems inevitable but she’s trapped by her mother-in-law and Jacqueline who can’t understand why she’s not delighted by her baby, and her husband who unilaterally decides she can’t return to work. Then a chain of events uncover a series of secrets that the story has hinted at. Some secrets are fairly obvious: it’s clear that Hugh’s mother would have preferred her son to have married Jacqueline instead of Isabel, but some secrets are more shocking, especially the one that reveals Isabel’s past and explains why she’s behaving the way she does.
Meanwhile Emily continues to oversee Hugh Morton’s biographer, Joel Richardson. She receives a parcel of a hurriedly-written memoir which Isabel starts by writing of her concern that her story won’t be told and that only Hugh’s version of events will come to light. As the reader follows Isabel’s story, Emily reads Isabel’s notes, the bundles conveniently turning up at the right time. Emily doesn’t make any effort to find out where the notes are coming from. When it’s clear that Joel has barely covered Isabel’s story, has written off her post-natal depression as “that’s how things were then” and argues that Hugh couldn’t be expected to have behaved differently, Emily feels she has to find a way of getting Isabel’s story into the biography, especially as Isabel was the inspiration behind at least two of Hugh’s most well-known female characters from his best-selling novels. However, for two-thirds of the novel, I found myself growing impatient with Emily. It’s only when she realises it’s almost too late to act that she becomes interesting. Before that she’s too passive and her purpose seemed to be merely to remind readers of the privilege of hearing Isabel’s story.
Rachel Hore does convey the awkwardness of literary gatherings, whether a book launch or poetry reading, beautifully. The barely concealed jealousies, the writers who don’t do small talk, the defensive answers to reasonable questions and writers struggling to differentiate between constructive and deconstructive criticism are eloquently captured. Jacqueline’s acknowledgement that despite her giving Hugh a stable home life and space to write in, his love for Isabel and her passionate determination was stronger. Isabel is very real and her dilemmas about continuing to do the job she loves in face of tradition, convention and an older husband who’s baffled as to why having a baby is problematic. The friction between Isabel and her mother-in-law, who doesn’t understand why her daughter-in-law won’t settle for being a matriarchal housewife and church volunteer, sparks off the page. It may feel as if some of the contemporary chapters tread water in comparison with the currents of Isabel’s story, but those currents are strong enough to carry the reader into “The Silent Tide”.
By Emma Lee