The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch

January 25, 2009

Who is it for? Middle and Senior school students; adults

What’s it about? Thirteen years old Miles O’Malley is small for his age, but has an encyclopaedic knowledge about the ocean and its multitudinous life forms. While beachcombing one night on Skookumchuck Bay (part of Puget Sound) where he lives, he makes a remarkable discovery – a giant squid with an eye the size of a hubcap. Marine biologists are baffled; the squid is out of its usual territory. The media is mesmerized and, overnight, Miles becomes a minor celebrity. From that point on, strange things continue to happen around Miles, he gains the attention of a local cult, struggles with his passion for his ex-babysitter and, in the midst of all this, his parents announce their separation. Everything appears to be changing.

At its heart, this is a coming of age story. However, through the story of one boy’s adolescent “stürm und drang”, Lynch explores the wonder and mystery of the natural world, the beauty of science and the limits of human knowledge. The main message seems to be: pay attention.

Is it any good? Highly recommended. An award winning first novel, this is a fast paced yet lyrical novel suitable for a range of readers. Most readers should warm to Miles who is something of a science nerd, but is also presented as a pretty typical teenager, struggling with his own identity and trying to find a place to belong. Cleverly, Miles’s innocence is balanced by the other teen character Kenny Phelps, his cigarette smoking, breast-obsessed, foul mouthed friend. In fact, the novel is inhabited by a number of well-rounded, interesting characters who add interest and variety to the story and are treated respectfully by the author. In other words, Lynch is able to shift beyond the common stereotypes you’d find in many novels and present the characters and actions in all their complexity. There are no easy morals to be drawn here. This is also one of those books where the setting is as much a character as geographical location, and it is described with a lyrical beauty by Lynch. In fact, imagery and the use of figurative language are real strengths of this novel.

Probably what really lifts The highest tide above the usual crop of novels given the young adult label is Lynch’s ability to blend the hormonal self-interest of teenagers with reflections on the natural world and the role of science in helping us understand our world. Moreover, he achieves a nice balance between the use of teen colloquialisms and much more lyrical, reflective language. This is helped by the fact that, while written in first person, the narrator is an older Miles looking back on his life from the viewpoint of age and experience.

Finally, a warning. Read this carefully if you intend using it with students. The f-word is used from time to time (especially when Phelps is around) – although it helps define his character and, in my opinion, not used gratuitously. In addition, there is an indirect reference to male masturbation, a bit of talk about the size and shape of women’s ‘hooters’ and male penises, as well as the location and function of the g-spot. All of this is handled with sensitivity and humour, and is generally less explicit than I’ve seen in some other books, such as the Lockie Leonard series by Tim Winton. There are also some drug references and one eighteen year old, bi-polar character almost overdoses. All of these matters are just a small part of a well-written, life affirming novel and wouldn’t stop me using The highest tide with students. However, some of the content may cause discomfort for some teachers and school communities.

How can it be used? By all means buy copies for the library, but this is also a novel that would lend itself to close study by small groups and even whole classes. Easy to read and yet exploring challenging ideas, it is a perfect way to introduce students to how literary novels are constructed and read. Excerpts from the book could be studied during writing workshops to model how effective descriptions and images can be composed, and how to establish and maintain characters and relationships. Finally, composing stories in first person can be a trap for the unwary – it often results in the use of very informal, colloquial language that research shows is not highly valued by markers of demand writing tasks. Lynch’s work shows how a balance can be achieved between creating believable characters who use language authentically, while also maintaining the sort of lyrical and reflective prose that is valued. Part of the trick, of course, is choosing a narrator who recounts their life from the point of view of being an adult.

The 2008 Bloomsbury paperback edition contains a useful map at the front, as well as a ‘Reading Group Guide’ at the back. The latter includes a Q&A with Jim Lynch, a set of discussion-starter questions, and a helpful list of further readings. In addition, the book’s website can be found at: http://www.thehighesttide.com/.

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Comments

One Response to “The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch”

  1. Rebeecca Berkawits on November 15th, 2011 4:32 pm

    Okay. First of all, I just wanna say how much I love this book. Great. Setting, Great. Plot, great. Characters, great. Voice, great. The author of this book has just made a masterpiece, It is just great, and I cant keep the book down, I read it completely in one day. & I have read it like 7 times already. its an amazing book. Great. great. just, GREAT. 🙂 I just wanna thank the dude that wrote this, for writing such an amazingly beautiful book.

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