Hold Back the Tide by Melinda Salisbury
Scholastic, pb, £6.50
Reviewed by Charlotte Bond
Hold Back the Tide is the new YA novel by Melinda Salisbury which mixes fear and suspense with a striking setting and a cast of memorable characters.
Alva is a young girl who lives on the remote Scottish town of Ormscaula where her father looks after the nearby loch. She struggles to fit in with the local community who are suspicious after her mother went missing; everyone blames Alva’s father for her disappearance. Worst of all, Alva knows that her father killed her mother, and she’s just waiting for the day when he kills her.
However, all her previously held notions and fears are thrown into turmoil when a strange creature starts stalking the night, killing livestock, and striking terror into the town.
The first line was a real hook: “Here are the rules of living with a murderer.” It’s impossible not to find yourself drawn into a book that begins like that. I really appreciated the way that Salisbury built up how intolerable Alva’s life was, but also how she’d adapted strategies to cope. I was instantly presented with a character who was brave, resilient, and resourceful.
If I have a main criticism about this book it is that this first line sets up a novel that doesn’t really happen. I liked the idea of the power balance, the isolation, and the constant second-guessing that would occur if you really did live with a murderer. And while that certainly happened at the beginning of the book, the tension was eventually replaced by a different threat. I was a little sad not to see the initial idea carried out to its chilling conclusion, and looking at the Goodreads reviews, it seems I wasn’t the only one.
However, that’s not to say that what follows isn’t a good book in itself, because Hold Back the Tide is an enjoyable read. Salisbury takes some well-used ideas (remote location, actual monsters, human monsters, coming of age) and spins an interesting story around them. The pacing was good and the characters engaging. I found myself with tears in my eyes now and then as I really got drawn into the plight of the people of Ormscaula.
The main character of Alva is well-drawn and is pleasingly active for a young female protagonist. While she was good at making plans and acting on her initiative in a way that seemed natural rather than constructed by the author to move the plot along, I did feel that too many of her intended actions were frustrated by events or, more often, the men around her. Yet this is a minor niggle with an otherwise creditable and relatable character that should be a good role model for YA readers.
When it comes to romance, there’s a half-acknowledged love triangle that exists between Alva and two other characters. I felt it was noticeable enough to please those who enjoy seeing such things in YA novels, but didn’t dominate the story. As such, this romantic element isn’t going to put off those of us who think that love triangles are a much-overused trope these days.
Salisbury should also be credited with being subtle enough to bring the audience to consider the negative effect that human industry has on the natural world without preaching to her readers. The issue is there, it’s central, but it never comes across as a lecture, just as a natural part of the storytelling.
The setting of Ormscuala appears to be fictional, and I couldn’t exactly pinpoint the time in which this story was set – whether it was modern day but an old style world or whether it was set at some point in the past. Rather than detract from the book, I felt this enhanced the atmosphere of mystery.
The question at the heart of the book – what really constitutes a monster? – is one that has been considered by authors many times. With her wide variety of characters and one particularly unpleasant human villain, Salisbury puts the question again and leaves the answer to the audience.