Another intriguing work from an excellent author, which is as much an exploration of himself as of Hastings and the limits of reality.
Rees and his wife and two kids move to a creaking old house in the town, and quickly his wife sets to doing up the house, and he begins his daily walks of the area, discovering its history and eccentrics like occultist Alistair Crowley and inventor John Baird.
There’s no particular structure to the book, which is a reflection of how Hastings unravels for Rees, and how he himself seems to be unravelling. Like much psychogeographic writing, it’s about the discovery of surprising things whilst on ‘derives’, or undirected walks, and this is where he stumbles across caves or old buildings and weirdnesses.
Like other psychogeographic writing, too, it blends the minutiae of place, the intricate historical details and people, with big questions. In some psychogeography its big political questions like the privatisation of space. In this book it is more the question of what reality is, and how our current reality is so thoroughly shaped by things that can’t be seen or touched, like history or magic or ghosts.
What elevates Rees’s writings, I think, though are its constant moves to fictionalisation and memoir.
The fictionalisation comes regularly through the book, with Rees essentially riffing on the real-life historical discoveries he makes and creating short stories – something he did regularly in his book Marshland too, but is more random and haphazard in The Stone Tide, so much that you don’t know where reality ends and fiction starts. The stories are often just a few pages along, and border on the surreal, though don’t maybe have the elements of horror and weird fiction that were more apparent in Marshland.
The memoir comes regularly too, and is probably the most captivating part of the book. There’s a few bits to it – his struggle to keep hold of reality and recognise what’s happening outside himself is a big part of it, and one that becomes increasingly important.
There was the death of his friend Mike twenty years earlier, in St Andrews, which continually haunts Rees as he explores the coast of Hastings; the sense that he hasn’t dealt with the death or what he thinks he ought to have done to prevent it happening, is really powerful and moving.
And there’s his relationship with his wife Emily, which gradually falls apart over the course of the book, in part because of obsessive wanderings and his focus on the ghosts of his life and Hastings.
As with Marshland, I’m not entirely sure whether this memoir is fictionalised or not, but that’s beside the point – in fact, the thin veil separating fiction and fact, history and the present, and life and death, are what this book is all about, and so it makes sense that its hard to know.