The Infinite Tides, Christian Kiefer’s debut novel, is a lyrical exploration of the experience of grief. Powerful language takes you deep into one man’s mind, and you would be hard pushed not to be moved by his tale.
Keith Corcoran is an astronaut whose teenager daughter has died tragically during his first mission to space. We enter the story when he returns to earth and the home he once shared with his wife Barb and their daughter Quinn. The narrative unfolds as the story of Keith’s life before the mission and subsequent breakdown in the face of such loss; this breakdown, both mental and physical, is reflected in the novel’s structure. Occasionally Keith will drift out of a situation, taking us with him.
As you read, you come to know Keith through memories of his interactions on earth. We learn how his wife and daughter struggled to relate to his mathematical mind, which had enabled Keith to achieve his singular goal of becoming an astronaut. As we perceive the world through Keith, we gain insights that his family may never have had, insights that demonstrate how, before the accident, he figured the world and relationships through a series of equations. Keith relied on numbers for most of his life as solid and dependable fixtures. Once he returns to earth in the wake of Quinn’s death, however, he can no longer rely on them for an answer. Numbers now fail him as he tries to find an equation that adds up to the emptiness he feels.
The book tracks how Keith reconnects with his emotions, having sidelined them in the past for numerical logic and suppressed them after his loss. Moments of anger creep in, and the infinite tide of grief rumbles ever in the background of the narrative. Yet people crash in to Keith’s life in the form of two new neighbours, Peter and Jennifer, who distract Keith from his self-reflecting procrastinations.
Keith’s relationship with Peter is touching, as he is first mildly annoyed by him but then comes to know the Ukrainian immigrant and why he moved to America with his wife and children. Unable to find a job in America despite glowing references and earlier assurances, Peter has fallen in to despair. A battered old telescope is the only thing left to show for his work as an astronomicist in the Ukraine. At first Keith is disdainful of Peter and his telescope, but slowly he comes to know him and rely on his company. Peter is also a man stuck in the past, and nostalgia for his life in the Ukraine makes him feel worthless to his family. A quiet understanding develops between the two men as they both seek escape by looking at the stars.
Jennifer has an agenda towards Keith, but also a young girl, Nicole, who constantly provokes memories of Keith’s own daughter as a child that lead him to reflect on missed opportunities with her. He regrets not making time to enjoy his family and join in their lives. So intent he was on becoming an astronaut and going in to space, he failed to notice as Quinn matured and his wife grew distant. Keith was always the absent figure in the family equation, and now this is reflected back on him in the empty spaces he finds himself in. Quinn’s room and the empty house serve as a constant reminder of all that he has lost, or perhaps never had.
Although a book with such subject matter could be bleak, The Infinite Tides is a subtle and engaging journey. The reader enters the mind of a man who thinks in numbers and has floated in space. He has lived a life that is over and he must now start again. We drift with Keith in and out of his thoughts, through physical pain and mental unrest. There are moments, like this one, that are powerful and lyrical: ‘Know this. That the things that go into the fire are forever changed. That all you have ever done can be measured not by distance but by circumference. That these twin spirals of smoke: they are your life, rising in curls.’
The book, and its main character, remained with me long after I finished reading.