Small Press Spotlight
The Tide King by Jen Michalksi
Reviewed by Sierra Troy-Regier
Jen Michalksi’s debut novel, The Tide King (Black Lawrence Press), spans almost two centuries and tackles with honesty and skill a question all of ask: What if we could live forever?
The novel follows three individuals touched by the herb burnette saxifrage, which carries the power of immortality. Ela Zdunk, a nine-year-old girl is given the tincture by her “witch” mother during an invasion in nineteenth century Poland. Stanley Polensky is gifted the herb by his mother before he heads off to WWII. He becomes unlikely buddies with Calvin Johnson, a boy from the Midwest. The narrative moves between time periods and perspectives, eventually forcing the characters to collide.
Quickly, it becomes clear that eternal life is painful. Freedom from death comes with the loss of much of what gives mortal life meaning, including any sense of belonging—to a place, a time, another person. Michalski’s characters yearn for everyday burdens:
So many years, so many lifetimes, had dimmed her memory of her mother’s words, her scents. There was no scent among the antiseptic surfaces, the steel tables and cement walls of the orphanage. She peed in her new clothes and rubbed them in the dirt outside the playground; they always came back from the laundry, bright, soft, smelling like nothing. She did not understand how they could erase her so thoroughly, and yet she was still there.
Michalski leads the reader to reexamine what we think about death and how it shapes our existence—not only in the way it tethers us to one time, one place, one body, but also what it allows us to rationalize. As Johnson says, “Death made so many things possible: domination, fear, gratitude.”
Yet instead of dwelling on lofty ideas, Michalksi zeroes in on what an endless life would really look and feel like, from the emotional aches of these characters to the physical realities of bodies that re-grow: bones, tendons, the raw material that must find a way to stitch itself back together. After lying dead in a lake for decades, Johnson is reanimated:
He could feel the heat coming off his body, the accelerated steam engine of his healing…The pain came first, a bloated ache through his body, as he gasped for air, air, to fill every spider branch of his lungs, every tendon and muscle, for air to inflate his heart and arteries, to move the dark sludge of his blood. The smell came next, a sweet, bloody sour eggy smell. His smell. He closed his mouth as a spasm of air and gastric juices made its way from his stomach to his throat and pressed his face into the pebbled shoreline.
In the midst of creating this large and momentous story, Michalski manages a truly
magnificent feat: I believed every word.
In addition to The Tide King, Jen Michalski is the author of two story collections, From Here and Close Encounters, and a collection of novellas, Could You Be With Her Now. In 2013 she was named one of "50 Women to Watch" by The Baltimore Sun.
Black Lawrence Press was founded in 2004. The press specializes in contemporary poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, as well as works in translation from the German and the French.
Sierra Troy-Regier is a recent graduate of the Kratz Center for Creative Writing at Goucher College. She interns for the New York reading series Fiction Addiction.