The Drowning Girl - Caitlín R. Kiernan

This novel was our book club's choice for July, the theme of which was "Nominees for the 2012 Nebula Awards". Though this book hadn't been on my to-read list, nor had I a clue what it was going to be about, I'd looked forward to checking it out.

The Drowning Girl, described as dark fantasy and horror mixed with strong elements of magical realism, stars protagonist India Morgan Phelps, or Imp to those around her. Imp also has schizophrenia. As such, much of the novel's themes are centered around the nature of reality and human perception, exploring the duality of fact vs. fiction or truth vs. myth.

The book gets a bit difficult to describe beyond that, because of certain factors like the writing style or the jumble of ideas within. Imp, being an unreliable narrator, had much to do with this. Suffice to say, The Drowning Girl is a ghost story viewed through the lens of mental illness, and is a rather provocative yet critical look into our understanding of consciousness and perception.

The way this story is narrated, which I initially fretted over when I first heard about it, actually turned out to be much less distracting than I thought. I won't deny that at times it could be frustrating -- indeed, by design the book lacks "flow", and there were a couple chapters where I just wanted to grab my head and scream, "I just can't bloody do this anymore!" Imp will also sometimes go on these long, rambling tangents and talk in circles. But still, it wasn't that bad. For the most part, I think I was able follow the main thread.

As a literary horror novel or ghost story, however, it was a very subdued haunting and in my opinion fell a bit flat. Reading this, I became so absorbed by the intricacies and inner workings of Imp's mind that everything else in the story became white noise, almost irrelevant. Which, I suppose one could argue, is the point. Whether or not it was what the author intended, I personally viewed this book as more of an in-depth character study of Imp rather than an actual tale of the paranormal.

In the end, I can't say this book was my cup of tea. In spite of that, however, I can recognize its literary merits, and not the very least of those is the the bold and disjointed way the author chose to tell the story. This stylistic choice which at times annoyed the hell out me is also at the same time what I felt was the book's greatest strength. From my time as an occupational therapy student working in an outpatient mental health clinic, one thing that's always stayed with me is the constant struggle people with schizophrenia have with the breakdown of thought processes and their connection to what can perceived. Reading Imp's memoir brought me back to all the people I've met and worked with, and she feels very real in that sense. So while the writing style may be unconventional, it's also very realistic.

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