Review: The Drowning Girl, by Caitlin R. Kiernan

Cover of Drowning girlMy Nebula Review Series continues with The Drowning Girl, by Caitlín R. Kiernan.

The Drowning Girl is certainly not a romance, and yet within its pages a quite touching romance unfolds, almost without the reader noticing it.  The overall tone is one of menace and confusion and dread, but the resolution involves healing and love, and healing because of love (and a lot of therapy and medication and art and research – there’s nothing trite about the story).

The plot is hard to describe because a lot of the story is ambiguous.  India, also known as Imp, is a writer and painter who is living with schizophrenia.  She is able to control her symptoms with a complicated regimen of medications and therapy.  One night Imp sees a naked woman walking down the side of the road, and she picks her up and takes her home.  This woman’s name is Eva, and she becomes an object of obsession for Imp.

As Imp goes on and off and on her meds, she doubts her own perceptions of what is happening.  In one version of her story, Eva comes to her in July, and her function is that of a siren.  In another, Eva arrives in November, and her function is that of a wolf.  How many Evas there are, and whether they are mermaid or wolf, and what they want from Imp, are mysteries Imp struggles to solve as she wrestles with her mental illness.

The two most important technical components of this book are voice and imagery.  Imp is the book’s narrator.  Listen to this incredible passage, from a period when Imp is deeply obsessed with Eva and has stopped taking her medication:

All our thoughts are mustard seeds.  Oh, many days now.  Many days.  Many days of mustard seeds.  India Phelps, daughter of madwomen, granddaughter, who doesn’t want to say a word and ergo can’t stop talking.  Here is a sad, sad tale, woebegone story of the girl who stopped for two strangers who would not, could not stop for me.  She, she who is me, and I creep around the edges of my own life afraid to screw off the mayonnaise lid and spill the mustard seeds.

And here’s a more lucid passage, in which she talks about the fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood:

 Anyway, even with the happy ending, the story terrified me.  For one thing, I never pictured the wolf as a real wolf, but as something that walked upright on two legs, and looked a lot more like a man than a wolf.  So I suppose I saw it as a werewolf.  When I was older, and saw a National Geographic documentary, I realized that the way I’d seen the wolf, in my mind’s eye, made the story truer, because men are much more dangerous than wolves.  Especially if you’re a wolf, or a little girl.

I read Drowning because it’s nominated for a Nebula Award for best novel.  I expected something dark and scary, not anything romantic.  So it was a delightful surprise to find that the love affair between India and Abalyn is quite beautiful and vital to the rest of the story.  Abalyn is Imp’s lover and roommate.  In a story in which characters are always changing their identity, Abalyn is the only character who seems completely sure of who she is.  Abalyn is a male to female transsexual, and despite the altering of her physical form, she is very clear that she didn’t “change her sex” – she was always female.  Abalyn is also Imp’s link to the rest of the world and her tether to sanity.  Even though the focus is on other things, I grew to adore Abalyn, and her relationship with Imp is what allows Imp to move through the obsession with Eva and heal.

I recommend Drowning Girl to anyone who has an interest in revisionist fairy tales, in psychological horror, or in books with a strong narrative voice and an unreliable narrator.  It’s prose was lovely and horrifying, and although neither I nor imp is completely sure of what happened, it’s nice to know that love, as well as a very good therapist, helped things get to some sort of a happy ending.

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