7 years ago, Alva’s world was shattered by murder. Ever since, she has lived in fear. Now, Alva has a plan for escape. She’s ready to start a new life. But nothing about Alva’s life is quite as it seems…
As a rule, I avoid YA. I’m in my forties, and I’ve had a lifetime of reading books about teenage protagonists saving the world. These days, I’m consciously biased towards stories about people with more life experience and different challenges to overcome. But you know my chaotic good attitude to rules: they’re more like guidelines, anyway. And YA is a powerhouse of genre publishing, which means in any given year a few titles catch my attention.
This year, it was Melinda Salisbury’s Scottish one-shot Hold Back The Tide that lured me in with a promise of murder, monsters and mythology. This is why I’m flexible about rules: Hold Back The Tide makes my Best of 2020, hooking me with the opening line and not letting go until I washed up, wrung out, on its further shore.
Here are the rules of living with a murderer
The rules made me laugh (“On to rule three: If you can’t beat them, join them. Not in murder, obviously; the last thing you want is to get into some kind of rivalry”) even as they made me shudder. Our narrator addresses us with charm and dark humour, but she can’t gloss over her deep-rooted fears. Alva is absolutely certain that her intimidating father murdered her mother seven years ago.
Her rules are her coping mechanisms. Live quietly, live helpfully, do not attract his attention – let alone his wrath. Survive, and escape. Alva is clever, hardworking and resourceful. For seven years, she has kept house and helped her father tend the nets; and slowly, carefully, she has built herself a way out. She has a job waiting in Thurso; she need only find a way to vanish without a trace – just as her mother did – and she can reinvent herself as a clerk and an independent woman. She needs one favour from Murren – shunned just as she is, in his case for being a fatherless Sassenach – and then she’s free and clear.
But there’s trouble in the loch that puts food on their tables, waters their land and powers the mill, keeping most of the village. The water levels are dropping. Their nets are being shredded, sliced through as if by knives. Alarming signs that her father – Ormscaula’s naomhfhuil, responsible for the loch – should be responding to, should be warning the village about. About which he should at least be warning Giles Stewart, owner of the local paper mill and de facto headman by virtue of being the village’s main employer. But her terrifying father is saying – is doing – nothing.
It’s a classic set-up: a character determined to leave (and with good reason) presented with a dilemma that puts self-interest in conflict with their concern for their community. As Alva tries to navigate the final hurdles between her and Thurso, we see context masked by her fear: the kindness she gets from gentle Gavan, Gile’s son; the bond between her and fellow outsider Murren (Ren); the hints that maybe – just maybe – her father’s crime is not murder, but not being there when Alva needed him.
It feels YA for it’s brave young heroine and loose love triangle, which it sold me on because Alva is so goal-focused and firmly not engaging with either of them (she’s leaving, dammit). The developing feelings are sweetly played and intertwined with friendships that made me chant OT3, as well as suggesting that this generation might sidestep the bitterness of the past… if only Alva were to stay, and should any of them survive.
Because this is not a family drama of love and hatred and village social politics, although all these are vital to how the plot unfolds. It is first and foremost a mythological horror, and once the gods or monsters emerge from the lake it’s clear that nobody is safe – and that village prejudice and long-held resentments may claim lives long before the creatures do.
Hold Back The Tide snared me with Melinda Salisbury’s clean, crisp prose and careful choice of imagery (consider sheds ‘huddled together like gossips‘) and kept me on edge with expertly controlled tension. It goes all-in on the question of whether the true monsters are men or gods, with self-interest and abuses of power just as large a threat as the hungry creatures in the night (content warning: there is a scene that does not end in sexual assault, but is likely to hit the button for anyone sensitive in this area).
Does Salisbury make her human villains too awful? Perhaps. But I didn’t mind, as she also makes her teenage protagonists fierce yet vulnerable – and above all sensible. I loved Alva calling out the boys for being overprotective and sexist (sure, her plan is too dangerous, but Gavan’s far riskier one is a great idea), and her courage in the underground sequences (which had me gibbering for their echoes of The Descent).
Hold Back the Tide is neatly plotted, cinematically evocative and peopled with well-realised characters I could cheer on or boo off the page. A great choice for curling up on a wintry night to read cover to cover.