THE PLOT: Tidelands is set in 1648 during the English Civil War. The protagonist is a poor fisherwife, Alinor Reekie, who has been abandoned by her husband. Alinor lives on an impoverished island off the Sussex Coast and supports her two children as a midwife and herbalist, although many islanders suspect she is a wise woman. When she meets a young nobleman on the run, she doesn’t realise by helping him she is letting romance and ruin into her life.
RATING: As a huge Philippa Gregory fan, it pains me to give this novel three and a half stars. However, I feel it’s a fair rating for a book that I liked but didn’t love. In most of her novels, Gregory’s main characters are historical figures (royalty or gentry) and her skill is making them complex and realistic by surprising the reader and challenging contemporary assumptions. Unfortunately, Tidelands isn’t able to paint such detailed characters because the protagonist is purely fictional. This means the novel loses Gregory’s signature spark.
GOOD BITS: This book was quick, easy and fun to read. The plot draws you in, the bleak setting is starkly beautiful and you become invested in the characters. I particularly enjoyed the reflection of how ordinary people viewed the English Civil War. The various supporting characters, of both high and low birth, demonstrate the intricacy of the political problems and divided loyalties of the period. The book captures the momentous and terrifying feeling common to every generation, from the Magna Carta to Brexit, that political events have utterly, irreversibly changed the society’s structure.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: I think this book fell apart in the second half due to Alinor’s characterisation. She begins the novel very street smart, demonstrated by her fear of being named a witch. However, her actions start to feel incongruous. It’s hard not to give spoilers but her choices are so foolhardy given her station in life. She goes from an intelligent, capable woman who doesn’t trust men to a meek and doting lover. Although the world has been turned upside down by political events, I simply couldn’t believe a young fisherwife who knows she is often gossiped about would act that way with an aristocratic man. Plus, the ending annoyed me… (but, y’know… no spoilers… grrrrrr).
OVERALL: If you’re new to Philippa Gregory, I wouldn’t recommend that you start with this novel. In fact, it’d be very low down on my list because she’s got so many amazing books. Even if I selected my top ten novels set during the English Civil War, this wouldn’t make the cut. I don’t want to put anyone off. It’s a good book, with some good twists, it’s just not great…!