Cliff and Ossi have grown up in Plymouth on the island of Tobago, their lives turning on the axis of small-town life. One day they watch the arrival of a couple and their child at a luxurious house overlooking the ocean. The couple invites Cliff into their home and lives, and in that cool'flim-style' house, the harsh, brittle life of urban Plymouth is kept briefly at bay, desires obscuring differences in class and race. But then things begin to go wrong-money vanishes, the couple's car disappears-and those differences are brought suddenly to light, raising unsettling questions about relationships, wealth, and responsibility.
"Oonya Kempadoo's Tide Running is effective, beautiful, and haunting . . . and pulses with a distinctive Caribbean rhythm."
-Glenville Lovell, Washington Post
"With a finely tuned ear for the cadences of the Caribbean . . .. Kempadoo succeeds in turning an unsettling tale into an exploration of the global politics of desire."
-The New Yorker
"A vividly imagined [tale] by this poetically gifted, politically incisive young Caribbean writer."
Questions for Discussion
- “Most'a time me and Ossi spends riding them two small bikes Mudda did give us for Christmas, five years'a back . . . We hardly ever rides to Scarboro . . . Old bikes can't cut no style there. Laughing at how we hunch up on them li'l bikes, them fellas can make you feel small and country” (22-23). What does this quote reveal about the seemingly laid-back Cliff? What are his sources of self-esteem?
- Cliff, Ossie and Lynette spend most of their time at home watching American television shows like Bold and Beautiful, Oprah, and Baywatch , with commercials in between touting products that aren't available to them. Discuss the influence of television and movies on Cliff and on his eventual actions.
- When Cliff goes to court for the first time he says, “Me mudda can't even reach here yet . . . Outside I see Mudda reach. ‘I was trying to find yuh, uncle, de one in de force. What dey tell you?' She and uncle is the same kind, couldn'a never be there when you want” (158 and 160). Discuss Cliff's feelings of abandonment considering his mother's role as the sole breadwinner in the family. Find other examples of this in the book. In what ways is Cliff looking to be parented by Bella and Peter?
- Discuss the symbolism of ‘de black dallie.' “Jumped from siesta sleep to living wake by something standing right over me. ‘De Black Dallie', right close to the bed, a giggle from the floor, and Cliff's head pops up” (128)(. This is the first time Cliff shows up unannounced. What does this foreshadow?
- Kempadoo's writing is consistently praised for its lyrical cadences and poetic imagery. Share your favorite passage from the book, re-written in the form of a poem. Example from page 136:
A flashy proud sea horse sailed past at eye level,
Mother-of –pearl and blues glittering and trailing,
Its sea-eye watching.
Another and then another king sea horse.
Made you feel rich to see such glory.
And hold it for a minute.
- “He's an acquaintance, a friend. We met him and his brother in Plymouth. They seemed like reasonable young people.” What does Peter's statement to the police officer on page 194, after the car has been reported stolen, say about his regard for Cliff?
- S.C. voices concerns about the wisdom of inviting a Plymouth youth into Bella and Peter's home. As S.C. questions them, small interjections of Bella's thoughts reveal her own unvoiced worries. “The flash of an African mask on Cliff's face. Wasn't a crime” (133). “But his polish had disappeared sometimes. Baring a worry I still can't reach. Rough edges showing, attitudes sliding shy” (138). Why do you think the author brings in the character S.C. at this turning point of the novel?
- “Just so, from one to the other, from man-friend, equal in sex, to boy . . . But same time, that's the attractive thing, the spontaneity, the naturalness. The unsteady, uncontrived mess of a growing society. Born in it but still can't make sense of it. Watch it—calm and laid-back on the surface but deep undercurrents stirring. Strong tides running” (127). Why did Kempadoo choose Tide Running as a title?
- Cliff is jailed once it is discovered that he is responsible for “t'iefin” the money and taking the car for joy rides. In the interview with Kempadoo that follows, she says, “I wanted to try to deal with some hard contemporary realities but in a non-judgmental way, reporting and letting the language speak.” What are your judgments of Bella and Peter's subtler “t'iefin” and the degree of responsibility they are willing to accept?
- What do you make of the character of Thomas? What purpose does he serve in propelling the narrative?
- When Ossie and Cliff first visit Peter and Bella, Cliff feels as though his surroundings are unreal, “Inside the house make you feel like you on TV . . . I look at me Nikes . . . Look like it wasn't my foot, is a shiny photo, a ad” (53). Compare the innocence of this early flight of fancy to the later one on page 201. “See me speeding flying. Silva bullet. Watch me nuh. Revearse, brakes, action. Tupac rapping in yah fucking face, a short-man stand up over fire in black and white—‘Top of the world, Ma' . . . Watch me nuh.”
- Cliff undergoes a sea-change of sorts, exemplified in the chapter “a suffering blue.” What important things does this stream of consciousness chapter reveal about Cliff's true nature?
- Cliff observes ‘hero convic' when he goes to court. “He was good looking but something living behind he eyes” (180). He notices him again in the jail yard: “I see the fella when we go outside to bathe. The thing in he eye reco'nize me but he don't want it to, watching me and them fresh convic's bathing out'a door.” Compare his description of this predatory criminal with Bella's thoughts about Cliff in the last paragraph on page 212.
- Setting plays an important role in Kempadoo's writing. Discuss her hauntingly vivid word pictures of Cliff's Tobago, verses Bella's house on the hill. The seascape is portrayed from both Cliff and Bella's point of view. How are these descriptions alike and how do they differ? How do changes in the perceptions of the character's surroundings reflect the unfolding of the story?