This is the third time that academic/novelist Sarah Moss has been on the shortlist of the Wellcome Book Prize. Although I read many  of the shortlisted books in the past three years, I’d never felt drawn to hers. I’m so glad I finally did; The Tidal Zone is really quite wonderful.

Unlike many of the non-fiction titles that vie for the £30,000 prize with grand stories of scientific exploration and endeavour, this book keeps to a small, local scale. Adam Goldschmidt is a low-level paid-by-the-hour academic who is the principle career for his daughters Miriam, 15, and Rose, 8. His wife Emma is a long-hours GP, who isn’t very domestic anyway, so he wipes the counters, bakes the cakes, and checks the homework. The household  muddles along pretty well until, one day,  Miriam stops breathing on the school playing field. And in a heartbeat their lives are irrevocably changed.

The book is about marriage, modern-day parenting, the NHS, just-managing middle class life in the Midlands, and the possibility of sudden death. Once we know the truth of Miriam’s condition we are constantly worrying for her wellbeing; we become her parents too. But it’s not cloying or maudlin, but life-affirming and authentic. 

Moss is a stylish writer,  for whom the words really matter. She herself is a full-time academic,  associate professor of creative writing at the University of Warwick,  with two children. As she told the FT a couple of years ago “If I have more than an hour in which neither children nor work needs me to do something time-sensitive, I write. If I’m in the middle of a novel and it’s going well, I write anyway.” 

She knows of what she writes, but she melds from those quotidian elements, a contemporary novel that grips until the last page.