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The Infinite Tides by Christian Kiefer

Published by Bloomsbury USA on June 19, 2012 

An astronaut returns from a mission to find that his wife has left him, emptying their house of all its contents -- all except a sofa that he hates. As is often true in a marriage, the characteristics that attracted Barb to Keith Corcoran are those that drove her to have an affair: his ambition and dedication, his drive to excel, his sense of destiny. Her complaints are common: he's never around, he doesn't talk to her. Keith understandably believes her complaints to be unfair; he hasn't changed, these are things she knew about him when she chose to marry him. But Barb has found a man who "listens" and the accidental death of their daughter while Keith was orbiting the Earth has only strengthened Barb's desire to leave their marriage. She tells him of her decision while he's still in space -- in the same space station where he learned of his daughter's death. Having finally returned to Earth, Keith isn't coping well. He has severe headaches. He's taking unwanted time off from work while he "adjusts." He has numbed himself into forgetting his last unpleasant conversation with the daughter who drifted away from him before she died.

The novel's other significant characters are a transplanted Ukranian named Peter Kovalenko, a mother named Jennifer who lives across the street from Keith, the mother's precocious daughter and Peter's wife. Peter, like Keith, is challenged by the need to begin a new life. He's a more interesting (and believable) character than Jennifer, whose behavior didn't strike me as credible.

Keith, on the other hand, is a convincing if not particularly likable character. A talented writer can make a reader understand and even empathize with an unlikable character, and that's exactly what Christian Kiefer does in The Infinite Tides. Keith is a man more at home with equations than people, a man who understands the relationships between numbers more than his relationships with his wife and daughter. Numbers make sense to him; people don't. His life had seemed to unfold with the clarity of an equation until it became "a faded ghostly scrawl impossible to read." Keith feels guilt for being an absentee father and for pushing his daughter to become another math whiz even if he can't admit his guilt to himself. Burying himself in numbers is no longer cutting it but reaching out to others is not his strength. Unable to cope with his sense of failure, he hides inside the comfort of a meaningless daily routine. Unable to return to work, he yearns to escape the pull of gravity, to float above the problems that chain him to his Earthbound life. I found his predicament and his reaction to it to be unexpectedly moving.

Kiefer writes sentences that crash forward with the power and rhythm of ocean waves. At other times his sentences drift quietly "like a moonlit boat on a flat and silent sea" (to borrow one of Kiefer's phrases). His best passages stabbed me like a stiletto. Dramatic images enliven The Infinite Tides: Keith tethered to a robotic arm that swings him in an arc over the space station, a moment that he repeatedly recalls to memory but lacks the words to describe; Keith and a retired naval officer wrestling a drunken, passed-out Peter into a car shortly after Peter proclaimed his love for a teenage barista at Starbucks; Keith and Peter star-gazing in a field; Keith getting caught with Jennifer in a compromising position.

Caveat: This may be a "man's novel," or at least a novel that speaks to men more than women. Two of the three significant adult female characters are presented in an entirely unfavorable light. If we saw Keith's marriage from Barb's perspective we would likely have a different take on Barb, but this is Keith's story and it therefore seems fair that we see Barb only as Keith sees her. That Barb comes across as uncaring, domineering, and even a bit cruel is entirely understandable, but readers who aren't sympathetic to Keith may disagree. Another caveat: Readers looking for a happy smiley domestic drama in which good things happen to good people should stay far away from The Infinite Tides. Although the novel offers moments that feel redemptive and guardedly optimistic, this is a vivid and uncompromising portrait of a man in agony, a man who is only starting to come to terms with his losses and, in the process, to understand himself. Keith's is not a comfortable head to occupy, but it's worth the effort.


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Reader Comments (1)

TChris, I love your descriptions of descriptions and gifted summaries of style and story. This novel is not a genre I typically read but you made it come alive.

June 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJames Houston Turner

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