Carl wakes up drenched, muddy, surrounded by paramedics and lying next to his dead brother. Unable to move, speak or recall anything about how he has ended up in this predicament, he is loaded into an ambulance. In the ambulance is a beautiful girl, also soaked to the bone.
She takes one look at his face and starts screaming.
Thus begins Rachel Ward’s The Drowning, which sets out to be a love story, a ghost story, a story about abuse, and a story about family. Of the four, the ghost story comes the closest to being successful. The idea of a ghost that can travel via and control water is scary in and of itself, and Ward really makes great, cinematic* use of it, sometimes with powerful, gushing torrents, sometimes with insidious, creeping mold. Ghost Rob’s growing strength is rivaled only by his malevolence, and Carl’s deteriorating mental state—despite clear signs of an actual haunting, at times I wondered if it really might all be in Carl’s head—adds to the tension.
The flashbacks are an economical way to dole out the back story—while there aren’t a whole lot of strengths here, it can’t be said that it isn’t tight—and they’re integrated seamlessly into the main narrative. What doesn’t work is anything having to do with an emotional arc: which, unfortunately, is most of the rest.
There’s an attempt to portray Rob somewhat three-dimensionally—after a long day of Doing Crimes and abusing women, he always said goodnight to his little brother—but he still comes off as an out-and-out villain, and that’s BEFORE he becomes an evil ghost. We’re supposed to believe that Carl is in love with Neisha, but beyond his (admittedly VERY strong) physical attraction to her and his obvious desire to protect her from his brother, there’s just…nothing there. The same can be said of Neisha, who supposedly reciprocates Carl’s feelings: The major attraction there seems to be that he’s not an abusive dirtbag. Way to aim high, Neisha.
All in all? Disappointing.
But I never like to leave you without SOME sort of recommendation, so here are a few related books:
Kevin Brooks’ books are often similar to The Drowning in that they usually focus on low-income British teenagers in high-tension situations. His prose stylings usually land him in the “literary thriller” category, though his thrills definitely lean more toward the psychological than the action-packed. If you’re looking for something with emotional depth, though, look no further: I’ve been a fan ever since Martyn Pig, but I especially loved Black Rabbit Summer.
Due to the popularity of Downton Abbey, we’ve seen a slew of historicals about the various denizens of manor houses. So despite all of my issues, one of the things that I really did appreciate about The Drowning was that it was about a contemporary working-class British family in a somewhat urban environment. If you’re looking for something along those lines, I can’t recommend Grace Dent’s Diary of a Chav highly enough. It’s hilarious, yes, and the slang is AMAZING, but it’s also a fantastic book about economic and social class, about prejudice, about family, and about how you don’t have to change who you are to become who you want to be. Years later, I am still sad that the series didn’t gain a wider following in the U.S.
And finally, a book I WANT to read: The Drowned Forest, by Kristopher Reisz. An accidental drowning, a trapped (and eventually DEADLY) spirit, lots of atmosphere and, according to Kirkus, “a solid creepfest.” SOLD.
*It’s not at all surprising that the book has already been optioned—it actually might work better on screen than it did on the page.
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or running the show at her local library, Leila Roy might be making stuff for her Etsy shop while rewatching Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, Black Books or Twin Peaks. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.