The Drowning Girl by Caitlin R. Kiernan
The Drowning Girl
Novels are often thought of as mere entertainment, something that readers passively imbibe without any investment on their part. But sometimes, you encounter a book that demands that you give of yourself as you read it, that you put as much into the act of reading as the author put into the act of writing. The Drowned Girl is one of those books, forcing you to confront your perceptions of what is real and what isn’t.
(Description nicked from the back of the book.)
“India Morgan Phelps—Imp to her friends—is schizophrenic. She can no longer trust her own mind, because she is convinced that her memories have somehow betrayed her, forcing her to question her very identity.
Struggling with her perception of reality, Imp must uncover the truth about an encounter with a vicious siren, or a helpless wolf that came to her as a feral girl, or neither of these things but something far, far stranger…”
Upon reading this novel, I was immediately put in mind of Justine Larbalestier’s Liar. Like this novel, The Drowning Girl cannot be passively taken in; rather, the reader is asked to take the next step and attempt to understand what is going on and the character involved in doing it. To do this, the reader has to let go of any expectations that all of their questions will be answered. Just like life, this story is messy and certain aspects of it may never be completely clear. This is where you will have to fill in the blanks, from your own experience or from you own beliefs, and by this device the author gets you deeply invested in the narrative.
The novel is certainly an interesting portrayal of schizophrenia. Admittedly, I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel in which the main character has this condition, although I have read stories with unreliable narrators, such as Liar. Writing a story in which the main voice can’t always be trusted is a tricky thing, and it’s a risky choice for a novel, as it’s a hard device to pull off successfully. Kiernan does so with a gut-wrenching tone of honesty and suffering. It’s very difficult to read Imp’s struggles and realize how much pain she’s in. Her lapses into fantasy aren’t malicious, but just a symptom of the inner demons that she’s facing.
The novel contains a large number of references to books, art, and fairy tales. I’m sure I didn’t catch all of the references, but I can say that the ones I did pick up on enhanced the story. The biggest and most pervasive one is “Red Riding Hood”. Since fairy tales were originally cautionary tales, and since they are being analyzed more closely in recent years to see their importance in our culture, making one so central to the story is a good reminder of the tales of our youth. It’s also a good reminder that those tales weren’t always sweetness and happy endings.
In the end, I really liked this novel and appreciated what it was trying to say, or at least what I was getting out of the author’s message. I’m well aware that with a novel of this kind, what I take away from it is going to be a product of my own experiences and emotions, perhaps more so than most other books. And because of that, I also found the novel disturbing. We all know that our minds and memories can play tricks on us, and so reading this story in which that tendency is taken to the extreme may cause you a little unease. Don’t avoid reading it because it might get to you, though. If you do, you’ll be missing out on a great and thought-provoking novel.
I’m amused to note that I’m writing this review after watching the movie As Good As It Gets last night. It reminds me that what is colloquially called “mental illness” is something that we could all do more towards understanding, while still acknowledging the difficulties of doing so. Take a step towards your own understanding and read The Drowning Girl. Both literary and fantastic, it will challenge your perceptions and give you a one-of-a-kind reading experience.
Also by this author: The Red Tree
This review appeared on Owlcat Mountain on February 29, 2012.