In this contemporary take on Charles Kingsley’s Victorian Christian classic The Water-Babies, British novelist Berry (The Hungry Ghosts, 2009) echoes the original’s fairytale lyricism while emphasizing psychology over morality as it follows four emotionally damaged British children whose lives intersect as adults.
After eight-year-old Owen’s little sister Sarah drowns, he and his parents never recover emotionally, and since he was supposed to be watching Sarah when she wandered into the sea, his guilt rules his life. Nine-year-old Catherine is following her beloved American cousin across a frozen pond when it cracks open; the girls are rescued, but barely in the nick of time. Afterwards, Catherine cannot shake the sense that she is doomed to make bad choices. Desperate to escape from the hard life of his family’s Irish farm, young Sean teaches himself to swim in the River Shannon, which becomes the only place where he finds solace. When his mother catches him swimming, his father beats him senseless. Also beaten is Naomi, an orphan whose vague memory of her mother includes swimming at a beach. Naomi’s vile abuse in a children’s home leaves her with immeasurable wells of need and anger. The four cross paths as adults in London. Sean, ambitious to become more middle class, marries Catherine, who doesn’t love him but is desperate to escape her harridan mother. Soon they have a joyless marriage and a colicky baby. Naomi becomes Sean’s mistress. Owen works for Sean selling tourist trinkets in a market stall and rooms in the apartment Sean keeps for Naomi. Owen’s redemptive story is the heart of the novel as his guilt propels his attempts to protect the other three from their demons. But some emotional damage is greater than others. Recovery does not turn out to be possible for everyone.
Berry’s writing is so gorgeous—sometimes lush, but just as often painfully precise while capturing in stark detail the emotions within a moment—that it is easy to forgive the hokier elements of the plot.