Regina McBride, The Nature of Water and Air (Simon and Schuster, 2001)
[originally posted 14Jan2002]
Okay, now that my first impressions are out of the way, this is one hell of a ride. All the more so because most books that have that effect on me are your typical big budget thrillers that, were they to go to the big screen, would be directed by John McTiernan or someone along those lines who uses a lot of pyrotechnics. The Nature of Water and Air is anything but; stuff doesn’t blow up here at all. In fact, it tends to do quite the opposite; characters implode on a fairly regular basis, but they do so within the context of a pervasive atmosphere that this is the way things are supposed to be. It’s hard to explain why something that’s so low-key can have such an effect, but I’ll give it a go.
Everything that makes this book work is atmosphere—big old houses that are falling apart, characters for whom clinical depression means things are looking up, Catholic schools harboring reclusive nuns, it all adds up to an unshakable feeling that not only is something bad bound to happen, but that everything that’s bound to happen is bad. It’s the revival of classic tragedy—bad things happen not because of the flaws in the characters (and there are certainly character flows aplenty), but because the gods have deemed that, for these folks, the dice came up snake eyes again and again, no matter how many chances they got. And yet still, when bad things happen to these people (be they good or not so good), every once in a while the way in which the bad things happen, or the scope of the bad things that do happen, is carried off so brilliantly that it might as well be the roof of the Nakatomi Plaza being blown to bits in Die Hard. Enchanting.
The story centers around Clodagh Sheehy and her mother, Agatha. Clodagh’s father has been dead for most of her life, and she has no memory of him. She has a twin sister, Margaret Mary, who’s too frail to do much other than play the piano once in a while. To top it all off, she’s convinced that her mother is a selkie, a seal taken human form who is destined to return to the sea at some point. Agatha married into the Sheehy family, and is not beloved of the rest of her husband’s family, so they send her to the other side of Ireland to live in a decrepit mansion the family still owns over there. Mrs. O’Dare, one of the housekeepers, comes along for the ride, and it is there our story opens. Most of the action goes forward through the reader finding out more and more about Clodagh’s family (the unraveling of her mother’s mysterious origins, the relationships between Agatha’s husband and his sisters, etc.), but there is also Clodagh’s growing up; the book takes place over the span ow twenty years. from Clodagh’s girlhood until just after her twenty-first birthday.
It is an uncompromisingly dark novel, one for which the word “bleak” is too light and airy. And yet it never fails to be beautiful. ****