The Infinite Tides is a book about emptiness. The emptiness of space. The emptiness of astronaut Keith Corocan’s family relationships which he sacrificed in order to pursue his training at NASA. The emptiness of his house which had nearly all its furniture removed by his wife while he was circling the Earth in the International Space Station.
Up on the space station, Keith was a respected engineer, responsible for fitting a complex robotic arm that he had redesigned. With the arm fitted, he looked down at his home planet and admired the beauty and completeness:
“It was a moment as glorious and transcendent as any he could have imagined and he would realize only later that it represented the single coordinate point in which he understood that he had done it, that at last he had entered the long incredible upward-turning arc that had been the trajectory of his life, and that he was, finally and undeniably, an astronaut.”
Towards the end of the space walk he was astonished by the “green and brown continents and blue oceans and white clouds”. Ready to go back into the airlock he had “a strong feeling that he had lost something”.
Soon after returning inside the space station, a colleague took him aside and broke the tragic news that Keith’s teenage daughter Quinn had died in a car accident. Technical difficulties meant that his return home could not be expedited and he eventually departed from the space station three months later, suffering from migraine headaches and separated from his wife.
Back on Earth, Keith was no longer deemed fit for work. Other than flashbacks to his training and time in space, the plot follows Keith as he prepares to sell the empty family home he had spent so little time in. The estate is an anonymous suburbia: four or five plans of houses laid out in endless cul-de-sacs.
Keith is no longer in control. He is in denial about incoming bills and the boxes of personal effects that his wife moved to the garage. He is enchanted by his next door neighbour, Jennifer. Initially irritated by a Ukrainian man’s antics in the local Starbucks, Keith warms to Peter Kovalenko’s love of astronomy and spends countless hours with him sitting in a field looking up at the stars.
As an engineer with a deep understanding of mathematics, Keith’s thinking is crammed full of infinite parallels, angles, planes, vectors, apogees and perigees. The mathematical prose adds to the beauty of the book and does not distract. Keith’s daughter shared his mathematical gift, but to his disappointment latterly chose cheerleading over academia.
Confronted by an expert in another discipline who is also out of luck, the novel explores whether Keith will have the capacity to reach out and help Peter to overcome his difficulties? Or will Keith’s lack of grasp of his own personal situation leave him unable to help another human being?
Christian Kiefer’s first novel is a dark tale. Happiness is always tinged with sadness and regret. Depression is not just a state of the mind, but a state of suburbia. Helplessness is combined with a difficulty to accept help. Academic intelligence does not equate to emotional intelligence or even an instinct to dig out of a hole quickly.
Despite its 400 or more pages, The Infinite Tides is a fast read that draws the reader into the life and plight of revered astronaut, ex-husband and absentee father Keith Corcoran. While the lead character’s back story adds a sprinkling of magic space dust, the emotions and dilemmas are very Earth-bound and common. A good, if bleak, read from musician, poet and first-time novelist Christian Kiefer.
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