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Tabula Rasa

Tide of Stone

by Kaaron Warren, Omnium Gatherum, 2018

A Review by Kyla Lee Ward

Tide of Stone, by Kaaron Warren
"There's one thing out there... you'll need to look for it. You'll know it when you find it."

"Don't let boredom eat away at you."

"Be careful. Look after yourself. Think of the future. Don't be too curious. Don't think you need to explore everything. Don't go too far down."

Phillipa Muskett, appointed as Keeper for 2014, receives all sorts of advice. She herself has been preparing her whole life, in various ways, for the year she will spend in the Time Ball Tower, tending to those imprisoned there. The experience either makes a person or breaks them irrecoverably, and she is determined to be among those who succeed.

Part personal horror, part Stanford prison experiment, part sheer poetry, Tide of Stone is a masterpiece. Never afraid to ask the big questions or to place evil under her literary microscope, in this, her fifth novel, Warren opens with the question of what is normal and abnormal, and what depends on the segregation of the two. Normal prisoners are not kept in the Tower; this is a fate reserved for "The heinous, the unrepentant, the undeniably guilty." Those for whom no amount of suffering could possibly be enough. Since the institution of the Tower and the Treatment in 1869, there have been those who have disagreed with the consensus, but in Tempustown, they are never many. "We're keeping society safe, Phillipa," her grandmother tells her. "Don't ever forget the importance of what you're doing."

Since 1869. The reader will glimpse every single year.

The reports left by previous Keepers introduce the Tower, its grand mission and the inmates. But although Phillipa is told they are the truest things she will ever read, they are far from transparent. One goes to the trouble of explaining that his predecessor didn't actually write his report, others that the Keeper before them was hallucinating, insane, or died. What is clear is that such things were never meant to become common knowledge, and that nothing can truly prepare someone for what lies in the tower.

The two worlds of Tempustown (three hours drive from Perth) and the Tower are evoked vividly, with competing textures of salt, skin and spice / rust, stone and lingering stench. Differing qualities of sunlight. Phillipa has a whole life to leave behind, that dovetails with life in contemporary Australia in ways both subtle and not-so. But beyond this, Warren has created a book in which the actual process of reading becomes unnerving. The ball drops. Dates accrue. Six words on an otherwise blank page. The ball drops. The tiniest details become potentially significant to the reader, just as they have to the inmates. The ball drops. The length of Phillipa's report, when compared to that of her predecessors, inspires alarm and mistrust. The dread of what might happen wars with the fear that nothing will, that just as the founders imagined, this is the worst horror possible. And yet, it is insanely hard to put this book down. The ball drops.

This book contains so many conflicts. Society's view of the elderly, as both repositories of wisdom and as a problem of disposal. Institutional cruelty versus that of the individual. But for me, the overriding theme that emerged was of duty. The duty to maintain tradition, to uphold received morality, as opposed to the duty of each generation to examine those things and decide for themselves.

Of course, the data is skewed.

Of course, vested interest doesn't play fair.

The ball drops.

 

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