Thursday, October 17, 2013

Review: The Drowning Girl by Caitlín R. Kiernan

The Drowning Girl by Caitlín R. Kiernan
Published : Roc, 2012
Awards Won : Stoker Award, Co-Winner of the James Tiptree, Jr. Award.
Awards Nominated : Nebula Award, Shirley Jackson Award, Locus F Award, Mythopoeic Award, World Fantasy Award

The Book :

India Morgan Phelps (Imp) is a mentally ill woman who is also haunted, for a certain definition of the word ‘haunted’. Her ghost story involves mermaids and wolves and two women rescued from the side of the road.  One is Abalyn, a transgender woman who becomes an integral part of Imp’s life.  Another is Eva Canning, a mysterious woman who brings chaos with her.

In her journal, Imp tells the story of the time(s) she met Eva Canning, and tries to separate truth and fact, in order to come to terms with the events of one summer and/or fall—both the events that happened, and those that did not.  The facts may never be clear, but perhaps the truth can be found.”  ~Allie

This is my 10th novel for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge, and with this review, I am officially back on track to finish within the scheduled year!  This novel is also my entry for the Readers Imbibing Peril event over at Stainless Steel Droppings.

My Thoughts :

The Drowning Girl is a very difficult book to describe, both because of the creative style of the story and its ambiguity.  The story is told through Imp’s journals, and she is an unreliable narrator with a very distinct voice.  Imp has no intention of telling a linear story, and she often rambles or skips in time to tell a part of the story that is less distressing.  She interrupts and argues with herself in the text, and constantly repeats or refers back to previous information.  Her voice also changes dramatically with her state of mind, and one memorable chapter in particular contains a very disordered but poetic stream of consciousness account.  Instead of moving chronologically through the events, it seems like Imp is slowly building up an orchestra of moods, information and ideas that can be employed to describe the significance and tone of events and to imply their connections to one another.

The tools Imp used to build her story come from a wide variety of sources, both real and fictional. Imp references many different artists (including Radiohead), in addition to well-known events and ideas (l’inconnue de la Seine, Kuroi Jukai, etc.). She also uses a variety of fictional cultural influences, such as the artist Phillip George Saltonstall, who created the painting, The Drowning Girl, and Albert Perrault, a modern artist who was obsessed with Little Red Riding Hood. Imp’s own art and writings also play a role in the story.  All of these pieces were used to build the tone of each scene, and to imply the significance of, for instance, Eva as a mermaid or as a wolf. While I would not call this a scary story, the atmosphere is certainly often dark and unsettling.

Within this rambling style, eerie mood, and wealth of real and fictional art, The Drowning Girl tells a story of three women. I think Imp was a much more sympathetic character because the reader was allowed into her personal thoughts.  She was not always the easiest person to handle, and I couldn’t help but wince at some of the things she said to Abalyn.  From inside her mind, though, one could see the frustration and confusion that led to her outbursts.  Abalyn was probably the most likeable character of the story, a geek who wrote reviews of video games for a living.  Her personality was extremely different from Imp’s, but they seemed to complement each other well.  Eva Canning, the third main actor in the story, was simply mysterious. The story was something of a challenge to piece together, and I’m not sure I have everything completely clear, even at the end.  I enjoyed the journey through Imp’s story, though, and I think the conclusion was well suited the style of the story.

My Rating: 4.5/5

The Drowning Girl can be a confusing book, but it is also a fascinating one.  Told from the point of view of a very mentally ill woman named Imp, the story follows her relationship with Abalyn, and her encounter(s) with a mysterious woman named Eva Canning (who might be a ghost, a wolf, a mermaid…). Imp weaves her story with cultural references both real and fictional, building an unsettling tapestry of a ghost story from each thread.  Less an account of a series of events, the novel is more about Imp’s experiences, perceptions and state of mind.  It’s definitely not a traditional ghost story, but it is a novel that is atmospheric, immersive, and creative.


  1. I snagged this from the library early in the year intending to get to it and just never managed to. I'm interested both because of all the praise lauded on it but also because I work in the mental health field. As yet it remains one of many I should have read by now. Glad you enjoyed it despite the occasional confusing bits.

    1. I'm curious to read your reaction to the novel. I don't have any experience with the mental health field, so I would be curious to see whether or not you find it to be a reasonable representation of her mental illness.

  2. Interesting book and review thanks. It made me think of a couple of other books also with unreliable narrators - We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House - both stories had me confused along the way and I'm sure I still haven't quite figured out what really happened in The Haunting of Hill House, yet in spite that I really enjoyed both so perhaps I would also like this.
    Lynn :D

    1. Thanks for your comment! I have never read either of those, but having now looked them up, they sound very interesting. It seems that I tend to like deniably supernatural stories with unreliable narrators, so maybe I would enjoy the two you mention, also :).

  3. This novel had everything in it that I look for when finding something to read. I was moved, I was challenged as a reader, and I had a lot deep, emotional reactions to the story and characters. You really can't ask for more than that.
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    1. I agree, it was a really excellent novel!