I am in awe of Mitch Cullin’s novel Tideland, but I am well-aware there are a whole lot of people who would intensely hate this book. The unusual perspective is what I admire most about Tideland, but it is also the very thing that makes it an uncomfortable read. It is from the point-of-view of 11-year-old Jeliza-Rose, a child of irresponsible junky parents. Telling a story through the eyes of an 11-year-old is daring in itself, but to tackle the perspective of a child who has never been to school, and has hardly seen a person apart from her well-meaning but unfit father, and her abusive, emotionally unstable mother, is something else entirely. Amazingly, Mitch Cullin absolutely nails it. Jeliza-Rose has an enormous imagination, and a mind that is always buzzing, but a much more naïve and innocent perspective than we would expect from an 11-year-old. But, of course, her maturity would be light-years behind because of her isolation. The reader objectively sees Jeliza-Rose’s world as lonely and unsafe, but also sees Jeliza-Rose infuse magic into everything around her with a child’s innocence and imagination. Yet, it isn’t that kind of story. Jeliza-Rose isn’t simply rising above her circumstances. The bleakness of her world is affecting her in ways she can’t possibly realize. The reader is left wondering how much living inside a world of imagination is just being a child, and how much might be indicative of psychosis. The next worry is the trouble Jeliza-Rose could find herself in if she continues to refuse reality.
I believe it was Harry Crews that said something along the lines that what happens in a book and what a book is about are two totally different things, and usually, when faced with the question, “What is this book about?” it is best to answer in one or two words. In reverence to that, one of the words I would use to answer what Tideland is about is “Isolation.” This book takes place almost entirely in and around an abandoned farmhouse in rural Texas, a place Jeliza-Rose calls What Rocks, with only occasional flashbacks to the already-isolated life she had before in Los Angeles. Jeliza-Rose moves to What Rocks with her father after her mother chokes to death. Soon after, her father dies of a heroin overdose. For much of the book, the only characters are Jeliza-Rose, and four disembodied Barbie doll heads she imagines as alive when placed on her fingers. The scenes involving the doll heads can only be described as creepy, and I believe these doll heads are really just projections of different aspects of Jeliza-Rose’s psyche. I liked the scenes with just Jeliza-Rose and the doll heads, but I was feeling the impact of her isolation strongly, and was relieved when Jeliza-Rose eventually meets her mentally-impaired, adult neighbor Dickens, and he and his sister/caretaker/abuser Dell are introduced into the story.
“Innocence” is another word I would use to explain what this book is about, and the addition of the mentally-impaired Dickens to the story certainly adds complexity to Cullin’s exploration of innocence. One of the most indisputably shocking elements of the book is the somewhat romantic relationship that forms between Jeliza-Rose and Dickens. And any reader would be lying, whether it be to others or to him or herself, if he or she didn’t admit that Dickens’ disability makes the relationship more palatable. Yet, as the story goes on we realize that innocence isn’t necessarily harmless. Dickens will show that although he is childlike, he is also dangerous, and his innocence in fact makes him more dangerous.
As you can see, it is not so simple to say “I recommend this book,” or “Go out and read this book.” A lot of readers wouldn’t make it through the first half, and I can understand why. This is a book that will make you uncomfortable, worry you, upset you, and challenge your beliefs, and beyond all this, there simply isn’t all that much stimulus. However, what I love about this book is I was always feeling something. I have given up on many books because I felt I couldn’t care about the characters, and I really cared about Jeliza-Rose. The filmmaker Terry Gilliam, who made a film adaptation of the book, said (and I am paraphrasing again) this book helped him find the child within him. I suppose something like that happened to me as well. This book takes its reader back through childhood, all of it, even the parts we’d rather to forget. It’s what makes Tideland a challenge, but also what makes it a really special experience.