The Drowning House: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, Jan 15 2013
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"The Drowning House marks the emergence of an impressive new literary voice. Elizabeth Black's suspenseful inquiry into dark family secrets is enriched by a remarkable succession of images, often minutely observed, that bring characters, setting, and story sharply into focus." —John Berendt, New York Times bestselling author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
"[Black] possesses elegant descriptive powers ... The honky-tonk allure of Glaveson's Strand district, in particular, comes alive in all its touched-up splendor." —The New York Times Book Review
"A spellbinding debut novel, a story of secrets, loss and the redemptive power of truth ... Black’s luxurious prose makes Galveston into a dark, fading fairy-tale world, and her descriptions of Clare’s internal strife reveal a keen insight into the human condition that eludes many more seasoned novelists. A page-turning chronicle of grief and memory, The Drowning House is a remarkable blend of human drama and satisfyingly Southern Gothic mystery, propelled by Black’s lyrical, haunting narration." —Bookpage
"A fine debut ... Black mythologizes this landscape, evoking its essence and that of its inhabitants, creating a novel that is far more than the sum of its parts." —Publishers Weekly, starred review
"Engrossing ... A multigenerational, thrillingly evocative and witty novel ... Black excels at summoning the unique culture of Galveston, its tragic past and scruffy present." —The Dallas Morning News
"Black does an excellent job of luring the reader on with hints here and little bits of information there ... An engrossing story of perception and context, with an appealing heroine and a fascinating setting." —Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star
"Prepare to be lost in Elizabeth Black's Galveston. Strange, mysterious, and utterly riveting, The Drowning House is a captivating mystery as well as a beautifully realized story about grief that skillfully evokes the heat, humidity, and languid desire that pervade Gulf Coast life." —Michelle Richmond, New York Times bestselling author of The Year of Fog
"As dark and gleaming as a ruby, Elizabeth Black’s suspenseful debut limns the slippery nature of truth surrounding a shocking tragedy, with language so exquisite you’ll be underlining phrases." —Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You
"Black, a poet, takes great care to construct each paragraph to reflect the complicated physical and emotional landscape of Clare's hometown ... A novel that encapsulates the convoluted machinations of a powerful family within the larger context of a society that supports its own, no questions asked." —Minneapolis Star Tribune
"A dark, addictive and compelling tale of Galveston Island. It builds to a stunning climax that keeps you reading compulsively to the end." —Galveston Daily News
About the Author
Elizabeth Black was born and raised in Providence, Rhode Island and now lives in Houston, Texas. The Drowning House is her first novel.See all Product Description
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Clare Porterfield is a successful photographer who grew up in Galveston, where she returns after an absence of many years to select archived photographs for an exhibition. She has grown apart from her husband Michael, probably because she says things to him like "I want to hear your ideas but I don't want advice," as if the poor guy is supposed to know whether his suggestion of an idea will be construed as advice. Clare also makes condescending remarks about Michael's inability to understand her photography and belittles his "conventional" taste. Their marriage is rocky in part because Clare blames herself for their daughter's death, although Michael obviously does not. Clare is similarly consumed with grievances about her deceased father and unloving mother. She's constantly picking at the scabs of her past, refusing to let them heal.
The novel takes its title from an apocryphal story about the house adjacent to Clare's childhood home -- identified in Galveston guide books as the Carraday House -- in which a seventeen-year-old girl is said to have drowned during a hurricane in 1900. When Clare was still living at home, she spent much of her time visiting Patrick Carraday, "the brother I never had, then later, something more." Then, when she was fourteen, she and Patrick shared a dark moment, the details of which are slowly revealed as the story progresses. After that event, Clare is sent to the Ohio to live with her grandmother and Patrick goes to Europe. In the present, despite being married and not having seen Patrick since they were young, and in the absence of any evidence of interest on Patrick's part in renewing their relationship, Clare can't stop mooning over him. She wants another life, the life with Patrick she imagines she would have had if not for their separation. Clare will eventually discover the difference between fantasy and reality.
The novel's first half is told in long passages of expository writing that the reader must wade through while wondering if they will lead to an actual story. Eventually we learn that the Carradays are keeping a dark secret about their family while Clare's mother is keeping a dark secret about Clare's family. By the time the secrets finally emerged, one bombshell revelation following another, I had stopped caring. Actually, I never started caring, so the blockbuster secrets struck me as contrived melodrama.
I don't need to like a novel's characters because unlikable characters can furnish insights into human nature, but I learned nothing from tedious Clare. It's understandable that Clare is grieving the loss of her daughter. It's understandable that she injects her pain into nearly every conversation she has. It's understandable that she thinks "that grieving the loss of my child would be my life's work." It's understandable that she resents her father, her mother, Patrick's father, and just about everyone in Galveston. But it is just as emotionally draining to read about woe-drenched people who are buttoned up in an insular world of pain as it is to interact with them in real life. It doesn't help that Clare is condescending, not just to her husband but to almost everyone (she wonders, for instance, whether the names Shakespeare and Homer "mean anything" to "harried mothers ... and grizzled homeless men" as if mothers and the homeless never graduate from high school).
Elizabeth Black's descriptions of Galveston are informative and colorful. She writes wonderfully rhythmic sentences, but they had a tendency to lull me to sleep. Black strives to fill every sentence with deep meaning. After awhile, her observational prose ("It's interesting to watch the very rich play the role of host") and earnest questions ("Have you ever discovered yourself in someone else's snapshot?") and reflective comments ("A child is a chance to be someone new and different") become grating. In fact, if I had to describe The Drowning House in a single word, "grating" is the word I would choose.
During this process, Clare reexamines her past and researches her family's history. She learns about her family's connection to the Carraday family and we enter into a dark mystery deeply intertwined with the local peculiarities and history of Galveston.
I haven't been to Galveston but I found the setting vibrant and rich, even alive at times. Perhaps it could be best described as atmospheric with a distinct aura. When you strip away the setting though, the characters seemed annoying at best and I did not develop an affinity for any of them, particularly because they tended to be so dysfunctional. The story had its charm and mystery but it failed to completely pull me in. However, I did consider this a pleasant read and the denouement was satisfying. I would recommend this book, especially if you are interested in Galveston and its history.
Once in Galveston, Clare finds her mother, Eleanor, the same as always: prim, busy, quick to criticize. Clare has always been the invisible child, the one who watches. Even as an adult, she continues her reclusive habits, trying to find a way out of her grief and to locate her former partner in childhood pranks, Patrick.
Black captures the aura of Galveston, from its heyday as a resort city through the hurricane of 1900 and the rebuilding after it. All of the details about the city help to focus Clare on the storm inside of her, the reasons for her unhappiness with life as she knows it. She uncovers layer after layer of secrets about the people she thought she knew.
The ending is a punch after the reader has been lulled into The Island's way of life and The Islanders' way of looking at things. The minor characters, Faline and Otis, Harriet, Ty, everyone contributes something meaningful to the mystery and the end result.
The denouement is satisfying as well as a little mysterious. In this first novel, Elizabeth Black shows the influence of her poetry as well as her ability to develop character and plot. A+
Ms. Black takes us on a journey with her protagonist Clare Porterfield as she returns to her family home on Galveston Island, a place filled with corrosive relationships and family secrets. Like the salty haze that permeates the island, slowly and silently undermining the paint and wood of the cities edifices while the winds and tides erode the beaches so too, do the hidden secrets and insular lives of the Carraday and Porterfield families eat away at their happiness and peace of mind. The title, THE DROWNING HOUSE, could easily be a metaphor for the destiny of the two families who are individually and collectively being overtaken and consumed by a flood of altered memories and carefully guarded secrets.
For Clare, her entire being is so focused on reconnecting with her childhood friend Patrick as well as with her photography that she is either unable or unwilling to see what is obvious to those around her. She clings to her camera as if it were a life preserver that provides some level of comfort and control. For years both she and Patrick have struggled to cope with and overcome the dark and tragic legacy of their two uncommonly unusual families.....a struggle that continues to this day.
For me DROWNING HOUSE is reminiscent of one of my favorite novels, Pat Conroy's PRINCE OF TIDES. Both books are about people who form attachments and connections based upon unhappy circumstances and loneliness. Both novels examine abuse, both mental and physical, both feature protagonists attempting to rediscover themselves as they deal with their broken pasts and both beg the question "can one observe without assimilating and see but lack vision"? The most obvious difference in the books is that in Conroy's tome the characters are a bit more developed and three dimensional while Ms. Black only seems to hit two of the three facets.
While Thomas Wolfe once opined, "You can't go home again", I certainly wouln't mind a visit to one of Ms. Blacks subsequent narratives. 3 ½ stars
Clare Porterfield accepts a commision to create a photoessay of the history Galvestion to escape from the grief of her daughter's death, a crumbling marriage, and to discover herself from the fragments of her childhood. Each character is drawn with a fine pen as they walk across the pages to enhance the plot, and blend into the tapestry of place. They are juxtaposed over a stark historical and landscape stage where truth is hidden behind illusion in raw view.
THE DROWING HOUSE is a novel that rates residence on your shelf to be reread at a later date.
Nash Black, author of SANDPRINTS OF DEATH.