The Drowning Girl
by Caitlin R. Kiernan
Cover Artist: Aleta Rafron
Review by Benjamin Wald
Roc Trade Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780451464163
Date: 06 March 2012 List Price $16.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Caitlin R. Kiernan's newest novel The Drowning Girl is an inspiring fusion of old and new. On the one hand, the novel is reminiscent of classic ghost stories in its evocation of horror through subtle suggestion and slowly building tension, eschewing the gore and explicit depiction of monsters that much newer horror relies on. On the other hand, Kiernan makes use of postmodern literary techniques such as the unreliable narrator and distortions of memory, perception and reality to evoke in the reader the sense of horror and madness that suffuses the novel. This is a ghost story in the best of the classic tradition, but updated with modern techniques and sensibilities, bringing us the best of both worlds.
The novel is presented in the form of a memoir being written by India Morgan Phelps, or Imp, a young woman who has been coping with schizophrenia since childhood. Imp is writing the memoir in an attempt to exorcise herself of a traumatic encounter, or possibly a pair of encounters, with a mysterious woman named Eva Canning. Imp herself is unsure of the reliability of her memories, especially as she distinctly remembers encountering Eva twice, but also remembers each of these encounters as the first time she met her. This mutability in memory, or possibly in reality, haunts the narrative, as Imp slowly tries to tell her story. The memoir format allows the author to tell the tale non-linearly, cutting between different times, revising what has been said before, and hinting at what is to come. This technique is highly effective, building up the suspense of what actually happened, as hints and clues slowly assemble to allow us to piece together what actually happened.
Imp herself is a marvelous protagonist. She is deeply relatable, yet also unusual enough to encourage the reader to see the world differently through her eyes. Her narrative voice is open and engaging, yet it becomes clear that she is hiding things, both from the reader and from herself. Kiernan's writing is exceptionally powerful, poetic without being dense, full of allegories and allusions, and it manages to combine non-linear storytelling with a full immersion into the fictional world, a hard trick to pull off.
My favorite aspect of the novel is how Kiernan manages to pair psychological horror with a kind of Lovecraftian terror at the unknown and unknowable. These two varieties of horror are usually immiscible, but Kiernan manages to blend them together, playing one off against the other, so that the reader has a hard time deciding which would be worse, for Imp to be insane, or for her to be right about what she thinks she has seen. In the end, the novel seems to suggest, perhaps both are true.
The Drowning Girl is a virtuoso horror novel, combining stylistic innovation, strong characterization, beautiful writing, and genuine fear. It's hard to know what more to ask of a horror novel. Kiernan is a must read, and this novel is an excellent place to start.