The Drowning Girl

By Caitlin R. Kiernan

(Roc Trade, $16, 352 pages)

Who is this author?

Caitlin R. Kiernan is a vertebrate paleontologist who was born in Dublin and now lives Providence. She has taught biology at the college level, and her research has been published in scientific journals. But she is more widely known for her award-winning speculative fiction, including such novels as “Silk,” “Threshold,” “Low Red Moon,” “Murder of Angels,” “Daughter of Hounds” and “The Red Tree,” along with prize-winning short stories. And she also has published two books of erotica (with the least-erotic titles I have ever heard: “Frog Toes and Tentacles” and “Tales from the Woeful Platypus.”) In her latest novel, she combines science and the supernatural in stunning ways.

What is this book about?

A novel cast in the form of a memoir told by a highly and admittedly unreliable author, “The Drowning Girl” is about a schizophrenic young woman, India Morgan Phelps. “Imp,” as she is known, has a family tree heavily laden with insanity, and she is obsessed by encounters with a woman (or perhaps a ghost, or a mermaid, or a werewolf?) named Eva Canning. Also figuring prominently are two paintings, one of them titled “The Drowning Girl.” In this many-layered tale, Imp tries, despite (or perhaps because of) her schizophrenia and OCD, to sort out and make sense of these terrifying elements, and while her mental illnesses are profound, they also provide her with a brilliant voice and the ability to make startling connections between fantasy and reality.

Why you’ll like it:

Well-written stories that tease the reader about whether the narrator is mad or truly haunted – Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” is a primal example — are always challenging. Kiernan does a masterful job of handling this kind of material. Imp is honest about lying and fearless about exploring the witches’ brew of her memories, both real and invented. Kiernan has created a tortured but tremendously compelling character in Imp, and readers will follow her convoluted path with excitement and dread alike.

What others are saying:                                                                                                                                             

Says Publishers Weekly:

“Kiernan’s finely crafted stand-alone fantasy guides an artistic young woman through a maze of false memories and blurred realities. A diagnosis of schizophrenia is no surprise to India Morgan Phelps, aka Imp; her “family’s lunacy lines up tidy as boxcars” down the generations. Meds and psychiatry help keep her stable until she meets Eva Canning, who looks just like the woman in “The Drowning Girl, ‘an 1898 painting that has enthralled Imp since she was a child. Imp’s need to learn the truth about Eva brings on dreams and memories that can’t be real, and the obsession only gets worse when Eva abruptly disappears. Could Eva be the ghost of the woman who inspired the painter of ‘The Drowning Girl,’ or a priestess whose worshippers died in a mass drowning in 1991? The chiding voice in Imp’s head urges her to get her stories straight, but how can she when reality keeps changing? Kiernan evokes the gripping and resonant work of Shirley Jackson in a haunting story that’s half a mad artist’s diary and half fairy tale.”

“Caitlin R. Kiernan’s newest novel… meets all the criteria of a ghost story, even if it may not be one: “The Drowning Girl” is a memoir written by an insane young woman, and it is about her encounters with a mermaid, a werewolf, a siren, and a ghost — or perhaps none of these, or perhaps all of these at once….It is really hard to do justice to the novel in simple terms.  It is a confusing jigsaw puzzle of ideas, events and history, and though in the end the pieces come together, they do so imperfectly.  Just like Imp, we suspect we understand what happened but will never truly be sure.  This is what makes the novel truly haunting….” says the blog Skulls In the Stars.

“India (“Imp”) Morgan Phelps attempts to write a memoir as a way of exorcising the ghosts of her past: her mother and grandmother, both suicides; the lover who left her; and, most important, a young woman named Eva who might be a mermaid or a feral woman raised by wolves. Struggling with her perceptions of the world as filtered through the lenses of her acute schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder, Imp writes and rewrites her story, doubling back on herself, digressing to add a pair of her own short stories, and liberally quoting poets, philosophers, playwrights, and musicians. VERDICT This novel by dark fantasy’s most quixotically brilliant writer (“The Red Tree;” “Daughter of Hounds”) blends urban gothic with magical realism. The result is a haunting and eerie tale of ghosts and madness,” says Library Journal.

When is it available?

You can scare up a copy now at the Downtown Hartford Public Library or the Goodwin branch.

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