The Drowning Girl: A Memoir

The Drowning Girl: A Memoir is a fictional memoir of madness, haunting and loss written by Caitlín R. Kiernan. The novel was published in 2012 by Roc Books (an imprint of Penguin). It was nominated for the Nebula Award, the Locus Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award, the British Fantasy Award, and the World Fantasy Award. It won the Tiptree Award and the Bram Stoker Award.

As you might suspect from all those award nominations, the novel is really good. I found something striking in nearly every paragraph. Trying to pick just one thing to focus on in my review was difficult, partly because it was like trying to pick the most valuable gold coin in a whole room full of dragon’s loot, and partly because trying to separate everything out in this complex narrative is like trying to pull a single live octopus from an entire bucket of octopi: grab onto one slippery cephalopod and five more latch on and come with it.

To paraphrase the narrator, India “Imp” Morgan Phelps, the book isn’t factual, but it’s true.

According to her Author’s Note, Kiernan was initially inspired to write the novel after she read a nonfiction book on the Black Dahlia murder. She also references and invokes the work of Lewis Carroll, Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, and dozens of other writers and poets. She does not mention Chambers’ The King In Yellow, but I could see its influence throughout her work, like snatches of a repeated motif barely audible in a layered, complex symphony.

One of the many things that struck me about this novel is its structure. At first, poor mad Imp’s story seems random, disjointed like her memory and mind. But then I came to realize that the narrative is very carefully constructed. Painstaking is the adjective that springs to mind. The structure of individual pages reflects the narrator’s obsessive mindset; sentences and paragraphs move in circles and spirals:

I didn’t realize I was also insane, and that I’d probably always been insane, until a couple of years after Rosemary died. It’s a myth that crazy people don’t know they’re crazy. Many of us are surely as capable of epiphany and introspection as anyone else, maybe more so. I suspect we spend far more time thinking about our thoughts than do sane people. Still, it simply hadn’t occurred to me, that the way I saw the world meant that I had inherited “the Phelps Family Curse” (to quote my Aunt Elaine, who has a penchant for melodramatic turns of phrase). Anyway, when it finally occurred to me that I wasn’t sane, I went to see a therapist at Rhode Island Hospital. I paid her a lot of money, and we talked (mostly I talked while she listened), and the hospital did some tests. When all was said and done, the psychiatrist told me I suffered from disorganized schizophrenia, which is also called hebephrenia, for Hēbē, the Greek goddess of youth.

On a chapter level, the novel has a much more disciplined structure, even though Kiernan maintains the illusion of disorder in the spiraling narrative. For instance, once you boil down Chapter One, it is an introduction to all the characters, themes and the essentials of the story the reader is about to embark on. Chapter Two launches the plot as Imp meets her girlfriend Abalyn and things start to get strange. The whole plot progression from chapter to chapter is quite logical and deliberate if you look at it on a macro level.

Kiernan changes things up in an interesting way by interspersing whole short stories written by the main character. The very first, “The Mermaid of the Concrete Ocean”, is presented as being a fictional truth by the narrator. Its “outsideness” is emphasized by it not being labelled as a chapter but as an insert between Chapter Four and Chapter Five. Separating it from the rest of the narrative like that gives the impression to the reader that although Imp has just told us the story is true, it’s still just something she made up out of her improperly medicated imagination and we shouldn’t give it too much credence within this constructed reality. But “Mermaid” more than anything else foreshadows and illuminates the presented-as-real events at the end of the book. It’s a brilliant bit of intentional misdirection. You reach the end of the book and realize the truth of it was hiding in plain sight all along.

In her Author’s Note, Kiernan states that the structure of her narrative was partly based on the Neil Jordan film The Company of Wolves and partly on Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3, Op. 36 (also known as The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs). She says that the structural mirroring of The Company of Wolves was unintentional until it was pointed out to her by her beta readers after the novel was complete; with the novel’s dreamlike qualities, fairy tale narrative style and stories-within-stories structure, the resemblance is obvious. But I, too, missed it until she mentioned it in her note, even though it was right there in plain sight all along.

I had not heard Górecki’s Symphony before reading Kiernan’s novel, but I did study music, and so I could see the structural resemblance to some kind of orchestral opus. I’m glad to know what the model was. The symphony focuses on strings and a lone soprano and lacks the epic swell of percussion and horns that you’d find in, say, a Wagnerian opera. The book’s macro-structure mimics the three movements of the symphony. Imp could be seen as the novel’s soprano, and in the book you’ll find no fantasy battles or other loud scenes; everything is intimate and personal and centered on loss and the fear of loss.

I’ve written stories inspired by individual songs, but to use an entire symphony as the template for a novel? That’s ambitious. I really admire this book.

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