The Drowning Girl by Caitlín R. Kiernan: the Barking Book Review

Caitlin R. Kiernan's The Drowning Girl: A Memoir (book cover)The Drowning Girl is an Incredible Achievement for Kiernan as She Continues to Evolve as an Author

It has perhaps taken me longer to get around to writing my book review of Caitlín R. Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl: A Memoir than it would have with some other book. But then one of the benefits of writing for your own amusement is that there is no such thing as a deadline. Having written under deadlines for so long, it always feels like a ridiculous luxury, this. So I’ve let several weeks pass between the moment I finished it and now, letting it digest and fully settle within my psyche.

To say that Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl did not disappoint would be an understatement, especially considering that I’ve had a year to look forward to it, having read the beginning chapter that long ago when she featured it in her monthly publication, Sirenia Digest. Then there is the fact that she is one of my favorite modern authors – I’m sure it that if this book had not been up to snuff in even the slightest regard, it would have registered as a big disappointment. But not only is it up to snuff but a pinch above it, even.

So if you’re not interested in the long of it, the short of it is this: it is most assuredly bow tie. And unless you are a frequent reader of Kiernan’s blog, you won’t get that inside joke, so let me clarify: it’s more than worth the cover price; buy it and read it. However, like The Red Tree, it is far along the writer’s evolutionary track and is some considerable distance from its predecessors. Personally I think this is a good thing; there is nothing more disappointing than seeing a talented author phone it in for the paycheck (not that I necessarily fault anyone for doing that; authors have to eat, after all). Fortunately for us Kiernan seems to be incapable of doing this sort of thing – incidentally, in my humble opinion, this inability separates the artist from the craftsmen when it comes to writing, and perhaps any artistic endeavor.

So anyone pining for another Silk, or even a Daughter of Hounds – which is still one of my favorites, by the way – is going to be disappointed. But then I suppose those readers have already jumped ship after The Red Tree.

That’s Gothic, Not Goth, Gawth, etc. …

There is a specific part of The Drowning Girl: A Memoir that echoes what I’ve come to think of as “classic Kiernan,” but I’ll touch upon that later. For now just let me reiterate: while The Drowning Girl has elements and themes in common with The Red Tree, it’s a distinct artistic entity, to say the least. In many ways what we have here is an almost traditional gothic novel. There are elements of horror and speculative fiction, to be sure, but they bubble and percolate through the background for the most part in what is a truly character driven novel.

After finishing The Drowning Girl I purposefully decided to read something familiar – to see an old friend whom I know well and am comfortable with, if you will. I wanted to let The Drowning Girl and the thoughts it engendered simmer in the back of my mind – there seems to be a theme developing here in this review – while I enjoyed a diversion that wouldn’t occupy my attention too much. In retrospect I think I may have unconsciously but instinctively chose Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights specifically, among the many other things I could have read (when reaching for literary comfort food I typically reach for Somerset Maugham, William Gibson or Tolkien).

Don’t get me wrong: you’ll find no Byronic antiheroes here, although Kiernan’s protagonist does enjoy the modern equivalent of a ramble on the moors: a drive on deserted back roads. But I think you could make a persuasive argument that The Drowning Girl has more in common with what we think of as the traditional gothic novel than that with much of Kiernan’s own oeuvre, specifically her earlier work.

This is perhaps by design, consciously or unconsciously – I would imagine the latter. Notably, Kiernan talked recently about her evolution as a writer and author on her blog. To wit.

People frequently ask: “I’m new to your writing. Where should I begin. For many years, this question vexed me. In the last couple of years, however, I’ve finally formed an answer to this question. I think it was, in part, a matter of maturing as an author, and gaining perspective, and being able to put my earlier works behind me. Now, I still can’t say, “Begin right here.” Rather, I can say, “Here are the books I believe would be a good starting place, a place from which you can develop a fair and accurate opinion of who and what I currently am as an author.”

She lists her two most recent novels, which includes The Drowning Girl: A Memoir, and several collections of recent short fiction. As she goes onto explain:

Now, please note that I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with Silk or Tales of Pain and Wonder being your favorite books I’ve ever written. If they still work for you, that’s cool. I’m saying they no longer work for me, as I am no longer that writer or that person. Indeed, I never could have written the books of mine I currently favor had I not first written the books that are no longer representative of me as an author. Also, I’m not saying you shouldn’t buy the older books; you should do as you, as a reader, please. I’m merely trying to honestly answer a persistent question.

And it’s entries like this that make her blog so eminently readable; she offers a lot of keen insight into the life of a working, published author and the art of writing itself.

And if you are new to Kiernan’s work, don’t get the wrong impression. There is much in her early works that is quite venerable and not without merit. Silk, for example, won or was nominated for a number of literary awards.

But I digress, as usual. Let’s get back to The Drowning Girl review.

Confronting the Truth in The Drowning Girl: A Memoir

Kiernan has remarked on a number of occasions in her blog that the process of writing The Drowning Girl was a difficult one; in some ways the most difficult to write of all her works. On one hand, while this is a work of fiction, she has stated that this is her her most autobiographical work to date. While not factual, or even thinly-veiled fact, it is nevertheless true. In fact – 🙂 heh – she has had some interesting blog posts in the wake of The Drowning Girl’s publication about truth vs. fact.

Indeed – I almost wrote in fact again – the protagonist of The Drowning Girl, Imp (a nickname; she’s not an actual small demon – which the reader might actually have encountered in Kiernan’s earlier works) – often discusses truth and fact. Something might not be factually true yet nevertheless be the truth of a matter; this is a theme at the heart of The Drowning Girl – as it arguably is for any gothic novel (and many non-gothic novels, of course).

Does Heathcliff every actually, truly see Catherine’s ghost wandering upon the lonely moors on a moonless, rainswept evening? Does Imp actually meet Eva Canning, and is Eva Canning really what Imp knows her to be – ghost, wolf, mermaid?

Does it matter? Whether something is factual or not – is this even relevant if it’s a matter of truth?

This is the question that ultimately India Morgan Phelps – Imp – must deal with and answer, if not definitively (and can anyone ever really answer this question definitively?), then to her own satisfaction. While every reasonably thoughtful person perhaps must deal with this question at some point in their lives, for Imp it is a key to her continued existence, as she must contend with her schizophrenia. What is truth and what is pyschosis? Is there a difference when ultimately we all live out our own lives, alone in the confines of our individual skulls?

The Drowning Girl: A Memoir author Caitlin R. Kiernan, by photographer Kyle CassidyWriting With Someone Else’s Voice: Kiernan’s Amazing Achievement

To elaborate, I think, would serve no more purpose than to provide spoilers. Let it suffice to say that Imp meets someone that may be a ghost; as such, she has to decide for herself the truth of her experience and confront her own mental state – and the ghost – in the process, because that has bearing on this truth.

While The Drowning Girl can be said to be a gothic novel, it can also be said to be a psychological novel. Written in the first person, Imp takes us along for the ride on her journey to the truth in her own mind, much of which takes place while she goes about her daily life – in other words, much of the novel takes place in Imp’s head. I imagine this may be a problem for some readers; it would be for me if the novel weren’t well written and Imp’s voice believable and sustained throughout the novel.

In fact I would hazard a guess that this is indeed a problem for some of her long-time fans; Imp is most assuredly not the writer that Caitlín R. Kiernan is (nor does she have much in common with many of her earlier characters); as such this is an amazing achievement when you think about it – and presumably part of the reason it was so difficult for her to write. While there may have been autobiographical elements – experiences common to both her and her protagonist – Imp nevertheless isn’t Kiernan, at least not the writer that Kiernan is; I know because I’ve read all of her published long fiction and much of her short fiction.

Kiernan manages to step out of herself, so to speak, and not just write about the character of Imp but assume the character of Imp and sustain that character throughout the entire novel. In fact there was only one point in the entire work where I felt she slipped in this endeavor and the author shined through – and this was the choice of one word. Nit-picky, perhaps, but these are the kinds of things that stick out like a flare on a cloudy dark night when I read, and why The Drowning Girl is such an accomplishment.

There were a few other places in the first half of the novel where I initially felt that Imp might not have said this or written that, but after having read further and gotten to know the character of Imp better, only the one aforementioned moment in the novel sticks out in my mind as problematic. Furthermore, this might not even trouble most readers; I think this maybe says more about me as a reader than Kiernan as an author. But it’s really the only true fault I found with the entire work (aside from the typos that seem to plague every first edition).

To reiterate: it must be incredibly difficult for an author to curtail their own instincts as a writer and write as someone else. To sustain it successfully over the course of an entire novel is an amazing feat. Only when Imp decides she must quit taking her medications for a time in order to confront the truth do we start to see a familiar voice – the so called classic Kiernan mentioned above. What this says with regard to the autobiographical elements of the story, well, I’ll leave that to the reader to contemplate and speculate – which is all I could do myself.

There is one spot in the novel, though, where Kiernan steps out of Imp, so to speak: a short story “reprinted” within the novel that is relevant to Imp’s experience. It is reminiscent of Kiernan, but even then reads more like an author that shares some similarities in tone and subject matter, as opposed to reading like something written by Kiernan herself.

No, It’s Not Silk. Now Stop Whining

So there you have the long of it; all 2,000 words of it. Go buy it and read it, especially if you enjoy well-written, character driven gothic and psychological novels. Only two more things to add. One, I couldn’t help but notice when I was digging up an Amazon link for this novel that there was one – and only one – one-star review. I couldn’t help myself and read it; I’m a glutton for punishment.

The Red Tree by Sarah Crowe (and Caitlin R. Kiernan) -- alternate book cover.I think here we have someone – who claims to be a long-time fan – who wants the author to keep writing the same novel over and over. This person complains that nothing happens in the novel and that it is nothing more than a ripoff of Kiernan’s previous novel. This Amazon reviewer even goes onto more or less say that they don’t like it because it’s not like Kiernan’s novels prior to Red Tree.

To this person I would say they missed the entire thematic point of the work. But then you really can’t argue with someone who constantly seeks the literary comfort of the familiar; I know as I’ve tried. This is particularly true in this post-Tolkien age of George R. R. Martin- and Stephanie Meyer-dominated era of popular fiction.

As for the comparison to The Red Tree, I would say that if anything the opposite is true: The Red Tree is the knockoff of The Drowning Girl. I would hasten to add that I don’t see it this way, but thematically, The Red Tree has much in common with The Drowning Girl, and in retrospect, from a reader’s and critic’s perspective, it feels like the novel that had to come before The Drowning Girl. Again, I’m just speculating — and may actually be way off base — but I don’t think Kiernan could have gone from Daughter of Hounds to The Drowning Girl without The Red Tree coming in between; it serves as a bridge. I think more thoughtful long-time readers of her long fiction would agree.

As for that second other thing to mention, it is this: The Drowning Girl, A Memoir hit a little close to home. This talk of ghosts and haunting – Imp is not only troubled by the appearance of Eva Canning but haunted, in a sense, by the memory of her mother and grandmother and the respective manners in which they died.

I know what that is like, to be haunted by memories, to have troubled ghosts wander through your dreams or leap into your thoughts, unbidden, during the waking hours. But I’ll save that for a metaphorical ramble some other time.

Buy The Drowning Girl: A Memoir at Amazon. 

Check out a video book trailer for The Drowning Girl here.