Elizabeth Black, The Drowning House (Anchor, 2013)
full disclosure: a copy of this book was provided to me free of charge by Amazon Vine.
How you respond to The Drowning House, the first novel from poet Elizabetrh Black, depends entirely on how you respond to the book’s narrator. Clare Porterfield is BOI—she was born on The Island, as Galveston, TX residents refer to their home—but has been away for sixteen years (she left at fourteen and, we are told in passing, she turns thirty while back on the Island during the course of the novel). During that time, her childhood passion for photography turned into a career. She met and married a man. They had a child. And, at some unspecified time before the novel begins, that child died.
All of this information, which is given us through an eyedropper as we go along, is necessary to get into Clare’s head. She is relentlessly, unbearably depressed. The entire book is filtered through her depression, which takes sporadic turns into anxiety and obsession as well. That raises the obvious question of whether she’s a reliable narrator; I will leave that to other readers to decide without telling you what decision I came to.
In any case, Clare, thanks to her benefactor (and the father of her childhood crush) Will Carraday, has returned to her childhood home in order to curate an exhibition of historic photographs of Galveston. When people from off-Island think of “history” and “Galveston”, only one thing comes to mind: the 1900 hurricane that almost levelled the town. It is not explicitly stated in the book, but it is reasonable to assume that Will’s goal is to broaden the horizons of the spectators; Clare’s is more egalitarian, and she finds herself intrigued by one of the Island’s old folktales, that of Will’s ancestor Stella, who, according to local legend, was found dead after the water receded, naked and hanging from the chandelier in her room. (The roaring waters, it is said, tore her clothes off. It is also stated this is relatively common among hurrican victims. I have not researched to see if that is the case.) The jacket copy makes it seem as if the Stella mystery is the center of the book. It is not; it is a subplot at best. The main plot of the book, if there is one, is Clare coming to terms with her own past, not only the death of her daughter and the erosion of her marriage that followed it, but the whereabouts of said previous childhood crush, her conflicting feelings towards the Island, etc.
I’ll admit it, it’s kind of a tough sell. I usually avoid reading reviews of something before I write my own, but it was a tough enough sell in my head that I skimmed a few others to see how the “normal” folk were handling it, and my fears were pretty much realized. I still won’t posit this as a certainty, but I got a lot more evidence from the reviews I read that this is a book where you have to have been there to get it; if you are familiar with that mix of depression, anxiety, and obsession that informs most every word that Black writes in Clare’s voice, this book will work a whole lot better for you than if you’re not. And, to be honest, I am intimately familiar with that mix, and even I found Clare a little over the top every once in a while. One review I read commented on Clare’s histrionics; that’s a very good word for a number of the admittedly ridiculous decisions she makes in this novel (even if she never follows through on many of them; this behavior is entirely realistic, by the way). If you’re not the kind of person psychiatrists see as job security, then perhaps it would be best to approach The Drowning House, after taking my caveat about the jacket copy above into account (this is a drama, not a mystery, and more character study than plot-based), as a look into the psyche of someone who is clinically depressed. Those of you who understand Clare on a visceral level, well, for us it’s just a novel with a protagonist we can identify with more than most, even if she is a remarkably frustrating one. Proceed with caution, but proceed anyway. ** ½