The Drowning GirlThe Drowning Girl by Caitlín R. Kiernan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

it’s been a while since i’ve been this flummoxed by a book.

it’s a ghost story, a mermaid story, a siren story, a wolf story, a crazy person story… all wrapped up in one. maybe that’s why it’s so hard to grasp–where it’s not mythological, it’s psychological, or maybe mythopoetic.

all of the above, i can handle. even in one book. it’s a stretch, no doubt–this is not a fishhook book, where you get nabbed by the hook and pulled along. you have to do some serious swimming against the current here, which, while hard work, is also very good exercise, and is not to be evaded.

our heroine, a (?) 20-something schizophrenic trustfund baby–Imp–is a little confused. one night out driving, she picks up a nude, mute, deeply mysterious woman whose name we later discover is Eva. we are immediately invited to ask: what is Eva? what is Eva to Imp?

the answer to those questions form the spine of the novel.

Eva is a siren; or Eva is the ghost of a drowned woman; or Eva is the ghost of a drowned woman’s daughter. but maybe Eva is a wolf? all the possibilities are explored, and none explored without merit.

Kiernan’s prose is in many places downright poetic, inviting any number of different reads. she uses poetic devices throughout, and none more effectively than a simple strikeout–pay attention when you read, you’ll find the resonances multiply when you see those. it’s like reading harmonics, or seeing pond ripples. the inferences just multiply.

but sometimes the narrative thread is lost. this is a novel. novels have structures. in a novel, A cannot be follow B. Kiernan, to her credit, fights the linear structure, as well as many other points of novelistic logic. what i can’t say is that she always wins her fights; sometimes, as a reader, one just wants to shriek “get on with it!”.

what happens in this novel? what is learned or achieved? the work doesn’t present any easy answers to those questions, which is what one will love about it, or hate about it, i suppose. i find myself rather ambivalent. i can appreciate the effort, the attempt, and i love to see writers push boundaries. but at the same time there are certain satisfactions required, and i am not sure Kiernan supplies those.

the satisfactions i refer to are not plot-based: i don’t need to be spoon-fed an answer to the nature of Eva (which seems to me the central question of the book). what i do require is consequence–what effect does Eva’s reality/non-reality/significance have for the narrator (Imp)? how does this affect her already tenuous grip on reality-as-we-know-it? those questions aren’t answered. and that’s a disappointment.

if you meet a siren on the road, should you kill it?

it’s a koan. and the book is a sort of koan, on many levels. as a koan, it is perfectly satisfactory. as a novel, it misses some crucial elements.

i will be thinking about it for a while, which attests to its goodness as a piece of writing. but i will also be annoyed at what it lacked.