If we are to disappear into the novels we read, if we are to become one with the characters and the story, what happens to us as readers when the subject is insanity? What if the main character, the primary focus and the book’s narrator is a schizophrenic with a dubious grasp on reality? This is the case with Caitlin R. Kiernan‘s The Drowning Girl, and it makes for a very good but troubling read.
As I read this work of dark fiction, I often wondered why I actually kept going. Was I enjoying the book? Was I drawn into the story? Or was I intrigued by the language and imagery? All of those were true to some extent, but not quite enough to keep my going. I am not one of those people who finishes a book just because I have started it. I am actually quite harsh in my practice of giving up on novels that don’t hold my attention. But that was it, no matter what else I can say of The Drowning Girl, it certainly held my attention.
We have all seen paintings or photographs that we admire. Artwork that makes us think and asks us to examine with a critical eye. We can appreciate the art, but we wouldn’t necessarily call it beautiful or want it hanging on our living room wall. The work is important. The artist is talented. But, there is no way we would want to stare deeply into that vision every day. This is precisely the literary sculpture that Kiernan has wrought.
The main character and narrator of this book, “Imp” to her friends, is having trouble coping with events in her life. This story is her coping mechanism. From the first page of The Drowning Girl, we are thrown into Imp’s world of double meanings, facts versus truths, and interpretation through examination and exploration. Everything we come across in the story is not what it seems, even the tale itself. Every person or object or event has at least two meanings and just as many or more truths. People are both male, female, and both. Single events happen not once but twice, then maybe not at all. Reality is a matter of perception, and perception is a state of mind. And most importantly the mind is volatile and subject to change.
The novel’s story of mermaids, werewolves, murders, suicides, and the collapsing and expanding of relationships is actually secondary to the darker story of how our minds, and especially the minds of those with mental illness, play tricks on us while laying themselves out as truthful. The horrors of the book lie not in the foul creatures and horrendous acts of the characters, but in the manipulations of perception and remembrance.
This dichotomy within one’s own self is what makes the book so fascinating but also makes it disturbing. It is like staring at a mirror too long, or dwelling on a certain word so long that it loses its meaning and becomes nonsense. I cannot honestly say that I enjoyed this book, because enjoyment is the wrong term for the reaction. But I honestly enjoyed how the book made me think and feel and question, even though the doubts induced will be hard to shake. Those thoughts have taken root in the most permanent but volatile of all places, my mind.