BOOK REVIEW / Wisps of wistful romance: 'A Summer Tide' - Tony Peake: Abacus, 8.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
'HAS anyone ever told you how beautiful you are?' Man to woman the question takes on an embarrassingly Mills and Boonish dimension. Even woman to man the squirm-making potential is enormous. So when Lucy puts this poser to Benedict, not only the fate of their budding relationship but that of the novel - Peake's first - is at stake.

Benedict avoids replying and they flounder, while the novel, surprisingly, flourishes. Surprising because nothing much happends. Little is said, there's hardly any sex and only the faintest wisp of wistful romance. Yet somehow Peake has got inside middle-aged Lucy's head and everything follows from her being believable.

So who is Lucy? She seems defined by negatives: she has no job or hobby, although she used to pose for her artist husband; she is painfully conscious of not being a mother, having agreed to an abortion to protect her husband's early career and then finding herself unable to conceive again.

She floats dreamily through this particular summer on a small island off the east coast of England, she and Charles cut off from the mainstream of life, and at first from each other. The few other inhabitants are men, leaving Lucy centre stage as Woman, the sympathetic life force. Other females remain discordant noises off, from her fussing mother to a strident neighbour's wife and their rebellious teenage daughter.

Lucy also gains in stature from being surrounded by stereotypes: man helpless in the kitchen; gay man with a taste for tough boys and sensitive art; chauvinist man; and troubled foreign man. These share an unfailingly chivalrous attitude to her that becomes tiresome.

Charles is more robust and the measured unfolding of their ordinary days charts the emotional ebb and flow of a long marriage. When nothing much happens externally this is convincing rather than tedious, especially when supported by the larger rhythms of country and coast. Even connection with the social world is dictated by whether the causeway linking them to the mainland is covered or exposed by the prevailing tide.

What finally occurs is that Lucy falls for Benedict, a young male guest, who turns out to be homosexual and disapppears. The potential danger to their marriage strengthens the bond between Lucy and Charles, who starts to paint her again. He is also stirred by the loss of his uncle-guardian and the realisation that his emotional and artistic life has been built on a lie: his dead parents had not had an idyllic marriage.

The undramatic story of Charles and Lucy circumspectly observing domestic rituals while their own marriage survives a threat is more satisfying than Peake's rather self-conscious considerations of art.