I just read The Drowning Girl and think your review is spot-on. It's not an easy book, but it's a brilliant book. I'm not sure I ever doubted a "payoff" from the book -- the whole read was the payoff, but you're right, the unreliable narrator makes you wonder if you will ever know the "truth". Having finished it, I'm now haunted by the book, just as the narrator promised I would be . . .
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The Drowning Girl by Caitlin R. Kiernan – review
If you have ever felt like women are difficult to understand, reading a Caitlin R. Kiernan book isn’t going to help you unravel that mystery any time soon. One of the things that I have always liked about her books is how complex her characters are. It makes them feel so much more plausible. They could exist. In one of her books, they exist so strongly it’s almost impossible not to imagine what their voices must sound like.
The Drowning Girl centers around a mysterious woman named Eva Canning. The story, however, is told by India Morgan Phelps, known to those around her as Imp. Eva Canning is the pivot around which the entire story turns. She is both hinge and crumbling glue, a wobbling anchor that never quite finds purchase. Naturally, when she stumbles into Imp’s life, everything gets unsettled and turned inside out.
Imp herself is an unreliable narrator. It’s not that she wants to deceive anyone with her narrative. Imp simply doesn’t have a firm grasp on reality. She is a woman suffering from mental illness, descended from a long line of women who suffer from mental illness. That Imp knows and readily divulges this shortcoming is important but not necessarily helpful to the readers of this story who are joining her as she tries to unravel what, exactly, happened to her.
The chief problem with Imp’s story is that she remembers two entirely different versions of Eva Canning, one she terms siren Eva and one she terms werewolf Eva. Both of the encounters happened at different times of the year, and both were divergent chains of events. Imp is trying desperately to sort out which series of memories are real. She is also frantically trying to understand how Eva connects to paintings by an artist named George Saltonstall and the work of another artist, Albert Perrault. She is unsure whether those connections are real or if they’re simply a product of her own imagination. As Imp fumbles for her answers, she stops taking her medication, stops seeing her therapist, and plunges headlong into her own madness.
The Drowning Girl is steeped in both art and folklore. The threads of both fairytales and mythology run parallel to each other throughout the book. There are stories within the story, tangents, bits of research, and glimpses of unhinged ravings that all come together to give a portrait of what Imp went through after meeting Eva Canning. It all creates a story that feel mystical and powerful and gives the reader a sense of accomplishment for sticking with the journey long enough to see it through. I don’t believe that I have ever before felt “The Lobster-Quadrille” by Lewis Carroll to be particularly sinister, but in Kiernan’s hands and the mind of Imp it becomes the theme of a mind unraveling.
The Drowning Girl is a beautiful book to read. It’s also a frightening book to read. The style of writing is lyrical and labrynthine. The farther you read, the deeper you feel you’ve gone into Imp’s mind. The story is a deep and mysterious bramble, wild and tangled and compelling, and it requires the reader to make decisions. You have to want to continue reading The Drowning Girl or, quite simply, you won’t. While reading, you have to come to the conclusion that you want to know what happened or stop reading and be satisfied with everything you don’t know about the story. Because, quite simply, Kiernan never gives away whether you will get answers or not. You are unsure, as a reader, whether or not you will receive a payoff at the end of this book. It is a risk you have to be sure you want to take.
That said, I won’t make any bones about the fact that The Drowning Girl is a difficult book to read. The story is non-linear because Imp’s thought processes are non-linear. This is a story narrated by a woman who is not well, and because of that, more is required of you as a reader. You must be the one to keep characters and plot threads straight. You must be the one to focus, and you must be the one to sort out what was real and what wasn’t, right up until the very end.
It’s well worth reading, but I would consider The Drowning Girl to be primarily for an audience of skilled readers who like some work with their story. The writing is beautiful work, but it’s also a challenge.