Being a review of sorts of Caitlìn R. Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl: A Memoir (Penguin-Putnam, March 6 2012).
Kiernan has long explored themes of the malleability of identity, of the numinous in everyday life. In The Drowning Girl, she gives us modern-day Providence through the eyes of a young woman who suffers from schizophrenia: the ultimate unreliable narrator. This is a deeply beautiful book, deep and sensuous, treacherous and unpredictable, as full of undertows and currents as the title would suggest.
Her protagonist suffers visions. She suffers obsessions. She is an artist, and she becomes fixated on paintings, on stories, on the legends of drowned women in New England over the years. As she begins researching those legends–and legends, as well, of sirens and mermaids–she begins uncovering terrible patterns. Patterns that cost her her lover, her art, her stability, and perhaps her life.
But her brain is unreliable, and she–and we–can never trust those things she sees. This book represents an incredibly artful use of the unreliable narrator as an absolutely essential structural tool. It reminds me of what Charles de Lint did in Memory and Dream, but it’s my opinion that The Drowning Girl is the more successful novel.
I’m trying to find ways to talk about this book without giving away too many of its secrets, because it’s like a tide pool. There are myriad small mysteries here, and they all deserve the careful, leisurely attention of a reader who is willing to immerse herself in the story. Drowning is not just a thematic element here, but a structural one. As Kiernan’s protagonist drowns in information, in badly processed neural signals, the reader is swept along on sinister currents and, in the end, must make her own decisions about what really happened. It’s troubling and beautiful and it leaves the alert reader questioning her own perceptions and assumptions about the real world as much as anything in the text.
With The Drowning Girl, Kiernan has achieved a level of maturity and complexity as an artist that her earlier work merely hinted at in potential.
I can’t put too fine a point on it: This is a masterpiece. It deserves to be read in and out of genre for a long, long time.