Monday, March 19, 2012

Song to the Siren

In the opening pages of the new novel by Caitlín R. Kiernan, The Drowning Girl: A Memoir, after the dedication but before the epigraphs, is this statement from Kiernan: “This is the book it is,/ which means it may not be the book/ you expect it to be.” The disclaimer, to use the crude term, is one that could be put in the front of nearly any book, an honest acknowledgement that the desires a reader brings with her to the text may not be the desires that the book will fulfill. However, it seems particularly apt here, in a book that engages so seriously with what is true, and what is factual, and what is real.

I could say that I read this book with no expectations, but that would be a lie. I had read some of Kiernan’s short fiction before, and been deeply impressed by it, but novels are different to short stories, and I hadn’t read any of her novel length works. I expected an intelligent book, on the dark fantasy to horror spectrum, which of course implies that I expected this to be a work of speculative, not mimetic fiction. I mention these things because I feel that reactions to The Drowning Girl might be informed even more so than usual by reader expectations, that people will read this book based on the kind of book they expect it to be, more than the kind of book it is.  It is a book  that perhaps fits best in that uncomfortable, interstitial space between genre conventions and reader expectations.

The Drowning Girl is a brilliant book. It is the story of India Morgan Phelps (Imp), and her relationship to Eva Canning, who she has met once, or perhaps twice. Who might be a siren, or might be a wolf, or might be the titular drowning girl. Imp may also be the drowning girl, drowning as she struggles with her schizophrenia and its effects on her memories and perceptions, the way she sees her self and her history. It is a complex and complicated book – it contains fictions within it, in the form of two short stories that Imp writes, and as Imp’s relationship with reality changes, the text changes in response. Perhaps because of that complexity, I can say that I have rarely been so impressed with the word-level prose of a book. Every word in The Drowning Girl feels exact, precisely chosen, and true.

This is particularly impressive in a book where the idea of transformation plays such a large role. Stories, and selves, and physical beings, and relationships transform over the course of The Drowning Girl. Kiernan foregrounds the idea of transformation, and then uses her text to explore how and why such shifts happen, and what their consequences are. She uses the precision of her language to open up for the reader the possibilities inherent in those transformations.

The Drowning Girl is a haunting book. Part of the story Imp is telling is the story of a haunting. Not by a ghost, at least not in the traditional sense of the concept, but by ideas. By memes. She is haunted, of course, by Eva Canning, but not just by the woman, but by the idea of the woman, by what she represents, by what she means. Imp is also haunted by a stories: myths, fairy tales, local legend, and the way these stories shift and change, by the balance between a story that is true and a story that is factual. She is haunted by her own story, haunted by her genetics, haunted by the idea of being haunted. Her hauntings very nearly drown her.

I recommend The Drowning Girl very highly. It is a book that requires the reader to think about and engage with the text on a very active level. It is deeply intelligent and gorgeously written. It may not be the book you expect, but the book that it is is well worth your time.