Caitlin R. Kiernan’s newest novel, The Drowning Girl: A Memoir, is a story written by India Morgan Phelps—Imp—about her encounters and involvement with Eva Canning, a siren or a wolf or “something far, far stranger,” as the flap copy says. It is her ghost story, her attempt to record her haunting and put it to rights when her own unreliable memory has wound circles and tributaries of fiction around the (factual) truth. The text is constructed as Imp’s recording of the events of 2008 from a point two years and some months in the future, initially, and slides between the past and present in her life as the story accretes and unwinds for the reader of the manuscript—a manuscript at first intended to be unread, to be ultimately private, but in front of us-the-reader all the same.
A helpful hint: here there be layers—layers upon layers, of fiction and fact, of fact and truth, of story and memoir, of tense and pronoun and audience, of real and unreal. The Drowning Girl: A Memoir is not an easy novel, but it rewards tenfold the effort and engagement of the reader who is willing to put in the work.
I adored The Red Tree, Kiernan’s last novel—also metatextual and complexingly engaged with the functions of narrative, reality, and memory—and had high expectations for The Drowning Girl: A Memoir, based both on that fabulous reading experience and on the folks whose tastes I trust telling me that I would love this book. And oh, I did. In fact, I’ve one word to describe my cumulative feeling about the novel—astounded.
Astound: (verb) to fill with bewilderment or wonder. Merriam Webster Dictionary
Bewilderment and wonder is more apt.
First, I’m going to be flat-out honest and provide a disclaimer. I’m not confident in my ability to describe and respond to this novel in a way that’s multifarious enough to do it the justice it deserves. But I’ll try, and with that out of the way: onward to the review.
The arrangement of the novel’s text as Imp’s (unintentional?) memoir is a deft and utterly convincing metafictional remove, containing as it does fictions within the fiction. The artists whose works bracket Imp’s ghost story, Phillip George Saltonstall and Albert Perrault—both invented—are complemented by other recurring textual echoes from writers like Lewis Carroll and Emily Dickinson. Imp is a painter who also writes, and her obsessions tend toward stories, paintings, pictures, myths—the tales that we tell ourselves to construct reality. The text also includes two short stories written by Imp herself, “The Mermaid of the Concrete Ocean” and “Werewolf Smile,” both of which are ways of constructing narrative out of impressions and obsessions.
That construction of reality out of stories is especially treacherous and poignant in Imp’s case, as she is a schizophrenic struggling over the course of her memoir to uncover and make sense of her false memories. The memories of the two versions of Eva that she does have are structured around the stories she has read and told herself about two parallel lines of mythology: sirens/mermaids and “Little Red Riding Hood,” in several increasingly strange incarnations. Narrative duality—the two Eva Cannings, and the two accreting myths, for example—is a central feature in this book. The reader, following Imp’s recording of her experiences, is left with many unanswered questions about the nature of reality and what “really” happened during those months in 2008 that Imp is working through/around as she records her own pernicious meme, her own haunting.
That’s another bit that I fell in absolute love with: the construction of an argument about what stories are or can be, and what ghosts are or can be, that revolves around an understanding of hauntings as a sort of contagious social meme. The examples Imp gives are varied and wonderfully tricky, including the Aokigahara forest in Japan—triggered by the novel Kuroi Jukai by Seicho Matsumoto—and her own recording of her haunting, inherited perhaps from Saltonstall when he painted “The Drowning Girl” to record and attempt to purge his haunting. “Are they innocent, or do we hold them accountable?” Imp asks herself, considering the artists who inflict these memes and/or hauntings outwards, whether or not they ever meant to cause harm.
While The Drowning Girl: A Memoir is certainly the slowly evolving and accreting story of Imp’s haunting, her memories of Eva Canning, her relationship to herself, and her relationship with her lover Abalyn Armitage, it is also a story about stories—or, about art more generally. It is a story built out of stories, containing a thousand small mysteries that can be read as uncannily united or totally unrelated. After all, the reader (and Imp) can never be sure where the patterns are authentic and where they are imagined, a result of what she doesn’t like to call magical thinking. The elements of the fantastic in this novel are also left uncertain and unpredictable, and I find myself unwilling to spin out the threads of story that all come together to form the ending—the ending that Imp considers, from the first, arbitrary. That ending, drawn out over the endpapers through short entries of other facts, other stories, for nearly a year, left me delightfully stricken—it’s just plain masterful.
And that brings me around to a final note, namely that the intricacies, undertows, and subtle seductions of The Drowning Girl: A Memoir would be entirely impossible without Kiernan’s rich, intense, spot-on perfect prose. Each word is the right word, the only possible word, to convey Imp’s voice and her intensely personal, uncomfortable, frightening narrative. The delicacy of shifting pronouns as Imp talks to herself, through herself, and through other characters in the text are complex without ever becoming confusing, authentic without being clumsy or telegraphing the actual author’s hand behind the text’s “author’s” voice.
There are other things that I could discuss. The commentaries on transformation, gender, and identity that Imp gives and Abalyn, a transgender woman, contradicts with exhausted patience are a small but integral part of the novel. On that note, there’s also the matter of how engaging, passionate, flawed and real I found every character—especially Abalyn, who makes a set of entirely different but also immensely difficult choices about her place in Imp’s life throughout the text. But really, I’d rather just tell you to read it, uncover the subtleties and piece together the experience of Imp’s haunting—and her life—for yourself.
The Drowning Girl: A Memoir is far and above the best book that I’ve had the fortune to read thus far in 2012, and I suspect it might just stay at the top for a long time to come. The sensations of wonder and bewilderment that I say I was left with on closing the book are absolutely not an exaggeration. Kiernan has fulfilled every expectation that I had for this novel, and then exceeded them so thoroughly that it’s challenging for me to encompass in words how brilliant of a book this is. Again, not hyperbole—it’s just that damn good, and that precise, and that stunning. Rarely does a novel demand and reward this level of careful engagement with the text, and I’m more than thrilled by the fullness of the experience that I had in reading The Drowning Girl: A Memoir. I recommend it wholeheartedly.
Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic and occasional editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. Also, comics. She can be found on Twitter or her website.