The Drowning Girl

The Drowning Girl - Caitlin R. KiernanWhen Odysseus was traveling home from Troy one of the adventures he had was passing the island of the Sirens. Legend had it that the song of these creatures was so seductive that anyone hearing it would lose their senses and dive into the ocean, where they would be drowned, or perhaps eaten. Knowing the risks, the wily adventurer had his men plug their ears with beeswax so that they could not hear the Sirens’ song. But, curious about the fabled beauty of the music, Odysseus left his own ears unplugged, asking instead to be tied to the mast of the ship so that he could not follow the lure, no matter how he was tempted.

This is a metaphor that has long obsessed artists of all types. There is, somewhere, art that is so beautiful it will drive anyone who witnesses it mad. If you wish to be truly great at what you do, surely it is necessary to put yourself in danger the way that Odysseus did. You have to skirt the edge of insanity, yet somehow remain anchored to reality so that you may live to tell of what you have witnessed. Those artists who dabble in darkly fantastic imagery are perhaps the most vulnerable to this temptation.

India Morgan Phelps is crazy. She knows that. Dr. Ogilvy, her psychiatrist, knows it too. India’s mother and grandmother both committed suicide. Schizophrenia is believed to have a genetic component, and therefore may be partly hereditary. India is on medication. Lots of it. But she keeps herself together tolerably well, even holding down a job. She also paints. She has a fascination with dark, disturbing imagery: the paintings of Albert Perrault, the true meanings of fairy tales. There is also a particular painting by Phillip George Saltonstall called “The Drowning Girl” that has obsessed her for years.

Eva Canning is dead. She was a senior member of an obscure religious cult called The Open Door of Night. It was based, as such things often are, in California. The entire membership of the cult drowned themselves on April 4th, 1991 in an apparent ritual suicide. They walked off the beach at Moss Landing and disappeared into Monterey Bay. Nothing was seen of them again, save for a few half-eaten corpses. The newspapers blamed sharks.

Though Eva Canning died off the coast of California, she was born in Newport, Rhode Island. India Morgan Phelps, known as Imp to her friends, lives in Providence. You knew that she had to, didn’t you? And this proximity explains why, when driving alone one night, Imp found Eva Canning standing, naked and dripping, by the side of the road.

In the bathroom, watching Eva Canning take a shower. The room smells like river water, shampoo, mud, turtles, soap. She is so beautiful. No one is supposed to be as beautiful as that.

Caitlín Rebekah Kiernan was born in Dublin but lives in Providence, Rhode Island, as perhaps all good writers of dark fiction should. Based on the testimony of a number of friends of mine, including such unreliable narrators as Neil Gaiman and Peter Straub, I believe that Caitlín Kiernan is a real person. Or at least she is someone created by the person who claims to be Caitlín Kiernan, because when it comes down to it we are all, especially those of us in the public eye, creations of ourselves. India Morgan Phelps and Eva Canning were also created by Caitlín Kiernan, as were Albert Perrault and Phillip George Saltonstall. Google tells me that Eva Canning and Albert Perrault are on Facebook.

I mentioned unreliable narrators above. Those of you who are averse to such things had best avoid The Drowning Girl. India Morgan Phelps tells her story herselves, both of them. That is, she talks to herself while she is typing. A piece of narrative may be followed by a sentence like this:

Imp types, “that’s a lie”.

Imp tells quite a few lies. She is also keen that we appreciate the difference between “truth” and “fact”. All artists should know this. Some readers may find it confusing.

During chapter 7, when Imp is off her medication, everyone will find things confusing. This is deliberate. It is also impressive. Writers need to be able to get inside the heads of their characters, no matter how difficult that might be. No matter how painful that might be.

All my telephones keep ringing, but I know better than to answer. I know what seeps through telephones.

The thing about madness, though, is that it is slippery; not as simple as it might seem. Like me, Caitlín Kiernan is mad. We’ve both been diagnosed, officially. Neither of us would be where we are today if qualified psychiatrists had not judged us to be suffering from a mental illness. This does not mean that we are crazy the way that Imp is crazy. It may not even be true, but it is a fact. And just like Imp we have had to learn to live with the particular consequences of our condition.

There is some discussion of the trans thing in The Drowning Girl. Imp’s girlfriend, Abalyn, is a trans woman. Through her, Kiernan says things that are sensible and informative. She also says a few things that are likely to get trans activists up in arms, especially those who can’t be bothered to check her history and assume she’s just some cis woman jumping on the bandwagon. Mostly, however, it is fascinating to see someone else’s insights and, while some people will inevitably fail to understand, there’s a resonance to this:

… being held prisoner by flesh, and wanting to be free so badly that death finally becomes an option …

The latest survey I have seen on the subject found that 41% of the (US-based) trans people interviewed had attempted suicide. It’s not the flesh that drives people to despair. Bigotry and discrimination do that well enough. But the flesh is the ever-present reminder of difference, a cage from which the soul longs to fly free.

And then there’s this:

I began to understand why Abalyn lived the way she did, writing reviews for video games, avoiding conventional workspace. She felt safe cloistered in front of her monitor or television screen, with no prying, uninvited eyes studying her, drawing unwelcome, uninformed conclusions.

Which is so true that it hurts.

Much like the rest of the book, then.

On the last Coode Street Podcast Gary K. Wolfe and Peter Straub described The Drowning Girl as “a masterpiece”. Elizabeth Bear says the same in her blurb for the book. Who am I to argue with that? Why would I want to? I loved The Red Tree. This book is better. In particular I love the use of paintings. Saltonstall’s “The Drowning Girl” and Perrault’s Fecunda ratis are so brilliantly described that you can see them as clearly as if they were on a gallery wall in front of you. Except possibly that Fecunda ratis may be, like Lovecraft’s non-Euclidian geometries, impossible to reify in our oh-so-mundane world.

Like Sarah Crowe of The Red Tree, Kiernan is doubtless assailed on Amazon by angry writers of one-star reviews. There are many people who don’t like complex, clever novels. Kiernan, and Imp, do not care.

The reader is eager to know what happens next, even though she ought to comprehend that I’ll only divulge the narrative in my own time, as I find the courage to do so. I didn’t set out to appease the Tyranny of Plot. Lives do not unfold in tidy plots, and it’s the worst sort of artifice to insist that the tales we tell — to ourselves and to one another — must be forced to conform to the plot, A-to-Z linear narratives, three acts, the dictates of Aristotle, rising action and climax and falling action and most especially the artifice of resolution. I don’t see much resolution in the world; we are born and we live and we die, and at the end of it there’s only an ugly mess of unfinished business.

That, of course, is a lie. Or at least it is if you assume that the above was Kiernan speaking through Imp. The Drowning Girl is a novel. It has a plot. It may even have a resolution of sorts. And yet, as with all of the best novels, it does not seem any less real or true because of that.

As for Eva Canning, well, I will leave that for you to find out. If Schrödinger’s cat can be both alive and dead at the same time, then maybe she can too. Only if you open the book will you collapse the probabilities. Before I go, however, here is something that may have been a lie.

The sharks were framed. The Humboldt squid are the most vicious predators of the Eastern Pacific. Sharks fear them. It was they who collected the sacrifice to Mother Hydra, drawing it down in their beaks and tentacles to the Monterey Trench where She makes Her home. They are Her servants, and Her spawn.

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5 thoughts on “The Drowning Girl

  1. First let me say, that’s a brilliant review. You’ve made me want to buy and read ‘The Drowning Girl’. It goes on the wish list for Finland. Suomenkirjakauppa here I come.

    I grew up about 60 miles from Providence, in a great nowhere swamp of undistinguished grim towns and cities. I passed my younger years plotting escape from a town so dismal that the Indian name for it means ‘little comfort’.

    If Caitlín Kiernan really lives in Providence R.I. I recommend that she move ASAP. She’ll never outrun the memories, but residence – some-place-else – will improve her mental stability immeasurably.

  2. As of a couple of minutes ago, The Drowning Girl had exclusively 5 star reviews on (10 of them). As it should. That’s a fact. It’s also true.

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