The Highest Tide is neither a science fiction nor fantasy novel, but it is so highly charged with the joys of scientific knowledge—in this case, marine biology—that I have decided to bring my reader's attention to it.
It is, in essence, a coming of age story, with all that that implies. Miles O'Malley is a 13-year old boy, small for his age, extremely intelligent, who makes a modest living collecting marine life from the tidal bays around his house in Olympia, Washington. But he has problems. His homelife is not a happy one—his parents are drifting towards divorce. His next door neighbor and best friend is an elderly woman, a retired psychic, who suffers from a degenerative nerve disease that is gradually incapacitating her. And he has feelings, both sexual and romantic, for a teenage girl, (his ex-babysitter), who is bi-polar and whose life is drifting towards destruction.
The opening paragraph:
|I learned early on that if you tell people what you see at low tide they'll think you're exaggerating or lying when you're actually just explaining strange and wonderful things as clearly as you can. Most of the time I understated what I saw because I couldn't find words powerful enough, but that's the nature of marine life and the inland bays I grew up on. You'd have to be a scientist, a poet and a comedian to hope to describe it all accurately, and even then you'd fall short. The truth is I sometimes lied about where or when I saw things, but take that little misdirection away and I saw everything I said I saw and more.
In one sense it is that typical "coming-of-age" story. We get the obligatory sex-obsessed teen sidekick, Phelps, who reads The Godfather for the 'dirty' bits, and spends his time obsessing about women's breasts. But Miles is such an engaging young man that you care about how he deals with these various age-old problems...you want him to find the right path through the minefield of youth.
But what makes the book so special is the evocation of place...and the beauty of the marine world.
|I showed him a hermit crab shopping for a larger shell, its antenna-ball eyes looking both ways before it dashed from its undersized shell into one left behind by a mudflat snail. The crab tried it on, but found it too heavy and hurried back into its old shell. "They've got little suction cups on their butts," I said, "that help them secure themselves in there."
I pointed out striped, quarter-sized limpets that looked like Chinese coolie hats. I told him Aristotle himself marveled at their homing instinct that allows them to slide snail-like around the beach, scraping up food, before returning to the exact same spot. It struck me right then that I needed to alert somebody that old Florence was already a limpet and on her way to becoming as stuck as a barnacle.
Miles, an insomniac, is always out on the mudflats at night, searching, searching. As the story opens, he finds a beached and dying giant squid - an incredibly rare find. A few days later he finds another rare creature on the beach, a ragfish.
And all of a sudden he is in the news, with reporters clustered around him like piranhas at a feeding frenzy. (That's my marine simile, by the way, not one used in the book!).
Why is he, thirteen year old Miles O'Malley, the one to find these creatures that by rights should not even be in this part of the world? Is there some larger meaning behind it? Can this thirteen year old be someone chosen by mystical forces to bring knowledge to the world?
Miles struggles to make sense of the various events going on in his life, as this summer defines "who he is." He faces drama and tragedy, but his love for the marine world and his place in it, helps to pull him through.
The book ends on an upbeat note, which is the way I like all coming-of-age stories to end.
Jim Lynch writes with a sure hand. Miles is a totally believable character and the narrative flows so smoothly you're not even aware you're reading. He interweaves his descriptions of the setting and the beauty of marine live so seamlessly into the narrative that it's all of a piece - you can't imagine one without the other.
Highly recommended for teens and adults.