The Drowning Girl: A Memoir by Caitlín R. Kiernan (book review).

Titles can sometimes be deceptive. The Victorians often wrote novels pretending that the book was a manuscript they had found and was the genuine recounting of some bizarre tale. Perhaps the reader thought it more exciting if there was a miniscule possibility that the story, even though extremely far-fetched, was true. In modern times, to call a book a memoir is to imply truth. Yet in fiction there is always an element of truth.


‘The Drowning Girl’ is written in the first person, so in one respect, it is a memoir, but of the fictional narrator. The author has set herself a very difficult task. The voice of the novel has a ring of authenticity about it but outsiders, like the majority of readers, will never know how close to reality it is. The narrator, India Morgan Phelps or Imp, is a schizophrenic who doesn’t always take her medication. This immediately makes her an unreliable witness. She is also obsessive.

Imp has been affected differently by two paintings, both of which form a backdrop to the story she is telling and which colour her actions and the way she sees life. One is ‘The Drowning Girl’ and depicts a young, naked woman stepping into the river while looking over her shoulder into the trees. It was painted by a Philip George Saltonstall and is described in great detail. This attention to the minutest detail is part of Imp’s illness. The other picture is a more unsettling image called ‘Fecunda ratis’ by Albert Perrault and is an impressionistic image of a shadowy dark wood with a splash of red near the centre. As a child, Imp had intensely disliked the story of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’. This picture brings back all the disturbing feelings she has about it. Both paintings have source stories which Imp determinedly researches.

‘The Drowning Girl’ is a picture that Imp has known most of her life, the other she sees for the first time when she goes to a retrospective exhibition with her new girlfriend, Abalyn. Much of the novel is about Imp’s relationship with Abalyn. Imp’s obsession with facts and information is her way of grounding herself and making sense of the reality she belongs to. As her mental health deteriorates, she becomes more and more involved with the back-story of the Saltonstall picture. She almost feels that she will see the real event it depicts if she goes to the place where it is painted. On the way back, in the dark, she comes across a naked woman, who calls herself Eva Canning, whom takes her home. It is from this point that an already nebulous and untrustworthy account edges into the surreal. Even Imp is never fully clear as to whether Eva is real or a figment of her imagination.

The Drowning Girl is a beautifully written and totally sympathetic portrayal of a mind in chaos. The repetitions and the attention to detail raise the quality of the writing to that of a high class literary novel. While it might not be to the taste of every reader, this is the kind of surreal fantasy that deserves to be read by as wide an audience as possible, even if only to get an idea of how a deranged mind works.

Pauline Morgan

March 2014

(pub: ROC, New York. 332 page paperback. Price: $16.00 (US), $17.00 (CA). ISBN: 978-0-451-46416-3)

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