The Drowning Girl by Caitlín R. Kiernan

Published by Roc         
March 2012      
ISBN 978-0-451-46416-3
Trade Paperback 400 Pages  
Review copy courtesy of the publisher Roc (an imprint of Penguin)           


India Morgan Phelps (Imp) is a schizophrenic, yet naïve young girl who paints and occasionally writes stories.  Her mother and grandmother were clinically insane and their mental condition was passed down to Imp, or so she tells us as the first person narrator of Caitlín R. Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl.

To say that Imp is an unreliable narrator is an understatement and settling down into the novel is not an easy task.  Imp writes her stories, tells them to us, but occasionally a person will argue with her about whether or not certain elements of what she wrote should have been included.  It isn’t clear to the reader who this argumentative person is, initially, which further enhances the fractured sanity of Imp. The bulk of the story is told from Imp’s point of view; she relates her past, her family all the while moving through a period of her life where she takes in a woman thrown out by her roommate, meets a ghost/mermaid/wolf-girl, and continues to paint. Kiernan also intersperses stories written by Imp into the main narrative.

Walking through the streets one day, Imp notices items at the curbside she takes to be trash. When she begins rummaging through the items, she is told it is not garbage by Abalyn – the owner of the items mistaken for trash. Abayln’s girlfriend kicked her out and being the naïve though caring individual she is, Imp invites Abalyn to stay with her.  This turns into a much more complex relationship than mere roommates; the two become lovers. Abalyn is very surprised how disconnected Imp is; Abalyn’s more modern music, television and gaming consoles (Abalyn is a video game reviewer) are new things to Imp.  In short, Abalyn’s more enmeshed-in-reality is a stark contrast to Imp’s dreamy, artsy existence. Both characters are complex though I found it very difficult to like and tolerate Abalyn, especially how she initially treated Imp.

On another of her wanderings, this time in a car, Imp meets a strange, initially silent woman in the middle of the road. Of course she takes the strange woman home, much to the chagrin of Abalyn despite the fact that Abayln came into Imp’s life in a similar fashion.  Imp learns her name is Eva; Eva might be a ghost, she may be a siren; she also might be the inspiration for a painting – The Drowning Girl – from the 19th Century that captured Imp’s fancy when she was a young girl.

Kiernan explores many heady themes in this novel; perception of reality, gender identification, hereditary legacies, art & the creation of story, the nature of sanity, modes of narrative, and accepting one’s place in the world. The Drowning Girl is a multilayered novel that is by no means linear despite Imp’s attempts to convey her story as such.  It isn’t a novel that can be or should be taken at face value.  As much as anything else, The Drowning Girl is a novel about people who are haunted, and like the novel itself, that word can be taken for all of its meanings as it relates to the characters who inhabit the novel.

And yet…yet I’m conflicted. After thoroughly enjoying The Red Tree by Kiernan, I was looking forward to reading The Drowning Girl. The narrative choices Kiernan makes along the way aren’t ones with which I can find fault; however, I wasn’t able to fully connect with the story she was telling. I think that was part of the plan on Kiernan’s part, too. I appreciate the work and complexity of the novel, but the narrative isn’t something I found myself being connected with or drawn back to reading.

In short, a book that, when I step away from, has plenty of things to admire but one that ultimately didn’t work for me.

© 2012 Rob H. Bedford

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