Low Tide

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Low Tide presents little plot but develops a series of relationships in expressive, poetic language. The title originates in a conceit explained at the beginning of the novel. After giving a brief account of her father’s return to England when she was twelve, Jezebel notes that “when the tide goes way out, sometimes odd sea things are stranded in the sand.” Thus, she and many of the other characters are, in Jezebel’s own words, just “such creatures—landed, salt-dried, and petrified in our monstrousness.”

These exotic figures cluster around two families—the Westerns and the Chasms. Jezebel Western’s mother, Pomelia, secludes herself in her brownstone crypt, feeding off her cache of memories and delusions of the Great House at Terrebonne: a “tottering Third Empire delirium of glory-be” hunched down in front of a Louisiana mangrove swamp. She married her Englishman husband when he was foraging among the debutante parties deep in bayou country, and their New York City life soon became a series of extravagant soirees. Eventually the appeal of the extended party dies out, and after twelve years Jezebel’s father decamps in disgust at a wife who lies in a darkened room all day “in a rat’s nest of black cashmere.” It is then that Jezebel realizes “how carefully life had been arranged” and understands “that forced gaiety after all couldn’t save the day.”

With Mr. Western back in England, responsibility for life in the decayed brownstone bastion devolves on Eustacius, a “righteous Baptist” black man, a lucky gambler, a bayou-born seer to whom strange angels grant secret visions. He cooks his own exotic recipes, “voodoo each time,” as Jezebel says. He runs a well-ordered but idiosyncratic domestic economy, admonishing Jezebel when she wears a dress that is too “heady.” He hints to Jezebel of “the great divide,” the boundary between the sane and the mentally dispossessed, and restricts her to the rational side. Jezebel complains that “it was an edict confining me to the sane and self-ruled.” Jezebel laments one fault in both Eustacius and her father: their fondness for “mad girls,” whom they promptly drive even madder before leaving them for partners who are still more abandoned. Unfortunately for Jezebel, she picks up this same trait as she falls under the spell of the driven youth Jem Chasm.

Jem is the older son of Professor Charles Chasm, her father’s oldest friend and a frequent reveler at the Westerns’ parties, one whose fond attentions to the child Jezebel made him her great favorite. Chasm’s first wife, mother of Jem and Casimir, is from an estate in Mexico almost on the Guatemalan border. Professor Chasm had visited there before taking up a teaching post at Duke University, and he had met the flamboyant Bocanegra family with its three daughters—Ifigenia, Ofelia, and Consuelo—living practically in purdah. Chasm’s engaging style—especially his ability to absorb copious amounts of alcohol—wins the father’s favor and Ofelia’s hand in marriage. Ofelia rides horseback like a daredevil, smokes her father’s cigars, and slugs down flasks of pulque expropriated from her father’s tenants. For Chasm, the Oxford don, she is just the wife to take to an academic assignment in the New World.

Alas, bridge clubs and committee work in Durham do not suffice for Ofelia. After three years in North Carolina, the Chasms depart for Georgetown, where the two boys grow into young teenagers. When Jem is fourteen, Ofelia’s father dies, leaving a fortune in trust to them. By this time, the Chasms’ marriage is a dead thing, and Ofelia takes to a life of restless travel, tugging Jem along with her while Casimir is left in junior high school. When Ofelia is afflicted with stomach cancer, the pace of travel becomes even more feverish. When she dies, the boys get a generous amount of money which they spend in Spain and Italy while living “free as pirates.” Jem soon wins a scholarship to Oxford, confirming for the fifteen-year-old Jezebel her conviction of the “prosperity of sinners.”

Two years later, Jezebel is in England visiting her divorced father and dining one evening with the Chasms. (The professor is now remarried to Stephanie, a “pulpy” faced Englishwoman with “leftist leanings.”) At this time Jezebel is discovered by Casimir, already clearly won to a life of dissipation and adventure, and he introduces her to the heedless life that he and Jem lead. It is now that Jezebel learns that she cannot resist the lure of obsessive, mad mates any more than can Eustacius and her father, for she is immediately caught up by a “trembling crazy exaltation” in the presence of Jem: “It seemed to me mad and sinful, this love of Jem that was more like fear and...

(The entire section is 1956 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Booklist. LXXXI, April 1, 1985, p. 1098.

Kirkus Reviews. LIII, February 1, 1985, p. 98.

Library Journal. CX, March 15, 1985, p. 72.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 2, 1985, p. 9.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, May 26, 1985, p. 13.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVII, February 1, 1985, p. 350.

Times Literary Supplement. June 28, 1985, p. 733.

Vogue. CLXXV, April, 1985, p. 242.

Washington Post Book World. XV, May 12, 1985, p. 9.