Sunday, May 24, 2015

Book Review: The Drowning Girl: A Memoir by Caitlin R. Kiernan

Fantasy fiction has long been crossed over with other genres, including romance, its sister genre, science-fiction, horror, and the supernatural. Caitlin Kiernan has made a career of mixing her dark fantasy works with a sense of horror, though it never consumes her work. Kiernan, a longtime author and trained paleontologist, received a great deal of acclaim for The Drowning Girl, winning the James Tiptree, Jr. Award and the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a Novel. After having read the reviews, I decided that a novel that got so much buzz and so many award nominations had to be experienced myself. Having read it and given it some time to digest, I can certainly proclaim it an unforgettable work that any lover of literary fantasy or experimental fiction in general should experience at least once. 

The novel, as the subtitle implies, is structured like a memoir in that our protagonist, India Morgan Phelps (called Imp), narrates her “ghost story” like a memoir she’s writing down months after the main events in her story take place; it is not finished, however. Like any story or life in general, Imp’s ghost story continues long after the event that set everything into motion. Structured into ten chapters with interludes for other writing Imp does, including short stories, Kiernan uses the novel to explore the concept of the unreliable narrator in a way that confused me more than any other instance—this was most prominent in chapter 7 (be warned—Imp rambles incoherently almost the whole chapter and it almost made me quit the book).

Our narrator, Imp, is a sympathetic and well-rounded protagonist. Born into a family where she’s inherited schizophrenia from her mother, who in turn got it from her mother, and so on, she struggles throughout the novel to tell reality from her own fantasies, all while connecting the dots of her ghost story. Her voice shrines through in a way that feels authentic to her experiences but also assured. Another strong character is her girlfriend, Abalyn, who Kiernan uses to ground Imp. Abalyn is there to offer support, to show someone who, like Imp, is also an outsider (she is a transwoman) but not as much as Imp so that even Abalyn sometimes doubts her girlfriend’s own testimonies. There is also the mysterious Eva Canning who may be a werewolf, a mermaid, or something else entirely. Kiernan injects her narrative with just enough of Imp’s backstory to help bring to life her late mother and grandmother to help flesh them out but also add context to Imp’s own character. Essentially, the character work is masterful and handled with grace and care. 

The plot I will not say much about lest I spoil any of the various twists and turns. The titular Drowning Girl in the novel is a painting by Phillip George Saltonstall. First encountered by Imp on her eleventh birthday, the painting is referenced several times and is essential to the mysteries of the plot. 

The prose in this work shines. Every word is well-placed. In some ways it is lyrical, and in others it truly feels like a memoir written by someone. That perfect balance adds to the personal and haunting elements of the novel. 

Perhaps my favorite element of the novel was its sense of place. The novel is set in Providence, Rhode Island, which is where Caitlin Kiernan herself lives. It shows in the details—the streets named, the sense of history, the cultural idioms unique to the area. . . . All this profoundly helped me immserse myself in this work.
Most of what I say has been articulated better before by many reviewers (see this review by Elizabeth Bear or this review for Strange Horizons ) but The Drowning Girl is a true masterwork. It, to me, should be held up as a novel of the fantasy genre up there with the best of authors like Angela Carter and Ursula Le Guin for its ability to play with narrative, memory, fantasy, and the inner struggles of its characters. It won't be for everyone (there are some sex scenes in the later chapters that slip into purple prose territory that I found myself skipping); the slow pace and the rambling narration may be a turnoff to some readers. However, like any great art, its broad appeal to fantasy readers and even to those outside genre should help it continue to find an audience for many years to come. I highly recommend it.

Score: 5/5

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