|Smart writing without being self-reflexively clever and excellent tension building.|
This book piqued my interest because it revolves around a girls swim team. One of my nieces is a swimmer and I am fascinated by the amount of work my sister put into her daughter’s high school team. Although my sister never struggled with another parent to stuff her daughter’s body into a race suit (they had official team suits), there were 5am practices to get to, appropriate foods to fret over, timing duty, and all-day meets.
This is the Water is one of the most creative and suspenseful mystery/thrillers that I’ve read. For starters there’s the writing style and structure. It’s written in the second person perspective and hangs on a structure of paragraphs that often begin with “This is.” This is the water. This is the facility. This is Chris. “This is you, Annie, mother of two swim team girls, Sofia and Alex, wife of Thomas” and “This is the killer, our killer, at the meet watching Kim.”
At first this structure annoyed me. It seemed like it slowed things down, was too staccato. During my first two reading sessions I had doubts about finishing the book and then, suddenly, it was lodged in my brain. I couldn’t stop thinking about the book when I wasn’t reading it and when I was reading it the style & structure carried me swiftly along like the hooks of a long poem or song.
Here’s a sample from early on:
“This is your brother with the gun in his mouth. This is your brother forming a cauliflower head on the carpet with his blood. This is his wife, hearing the shot downstairs in his office set up with sound mixers and stereos and computers. This is your brother’s teenage son, hearing the shot too, colliding with his mother as both of them try to run down the stairs together, barely fitting that way, abreast in the stairwell as they run. This is the mother using all of her force to hold her teenage son back from opening up the door. This the teenage son calling out for his father and banging on the closed door. This is the father answering with just the sound of his blood as it pours out of him” (70-71).
It was this scene that made me realize I was tightly gripping the book. It made me both teary eyed and excited to read more.
Short chapters also help moved things along so beware if you’re reading before bed, you might stay up too late. Publisher’s Weekly says the novel is, “Obscenely suspenseful. . . . In Murphy’s hands, the structure becomes almost hypnotic–and when the story hits full speed in the final quarter, the suspense becomes almost excruciating.” So true. Go figure, an honest book blurb.
The setting is rural New England and the characters are primarily middle aged parents in less than satisfying marriages if not outright unhappy unions. Annie, in the beginning, is in an obsessive state over her brother’s suicide. A serial killer in Denver is caught and that triggers the chain of events in This is the Water.
These two things, suicide and murder, are what eventually lead to the climax which highlights one of the themes of the novel, which is choosing life. Not just being alive, but living. Not just wondering and worrying about things, but taking action. Murphy subtly weaves life/death imagery throughout the story. Nothing is extraneous.
As a New England newbie, I appreciate Murphy’s descriptions of New England, particularly how you
can see right into people’s houses at night. New Englanders, at least those of the small town variety, aren’t big on curtains or other window treatments. Don’t people feel vulnerable? Is this some kind of Puritan hold-over, that people want other people to see that they are not doing anything against God behind closed doors? But I digress.
In this novel it’s not what people are doing behind closed doors that creeps you out, it’s that people can and can’t see from the outside in or inside out.
There were also some humorous bits and timely commentary. In one scene after listing all the healthy things the swim parents feed their children, Annie says,
“We do not talk of the bag of peanut M&M’s we buy to get us through the long day of working at a swim meet. We will not talk of the Diet Coke we drink, perfectly timed to be drunk after our coffee and before the lunch hour, but never in front of the children, least they see how we drink soda, and we never let them drink it themselves unless it’s soda water flavored with natural juice high in some kind of element or vitamin they wouldn’t normally get in their daily diet and packaged in a can whose design wipes out any image of an industrial facility spewing smoke, spinning the dials of the electric meter, and hiring immigrants at low wages. Instead the can design screams healthy, whole, natural, good for you, flowers, fruit orchards, and sunshine. As if the cans themselves were just plucked from trees” (133-134).
And how about this for timely, what with all the recent to read or not to read YA talk:
“You should be thinking about your girls instead. Sofia’s been reading too many YA books that are poorly written. You want to go through your own books and find one that’s a classic, one you know she’d like, but lately you haven’t had the time or the energy, the wherewithal to get up from your chair to do it” (172).
That’s Annie thinking and she’s been reading Anna Karenina. You can’t help wondering how the ending of that novel will be reflected in this one.
There are some brilliant sentences, too: “You feel warmth coming off Paul as if he were pavement on a hot day.” Not only is this a nice sentence, it speaks volumes about what is lacking in Annie’s life, the warmth of human connection.
There was a scene or two where I doubted something would really shake down that way, but it was a weak thought immediately replaced with wondering what was possibly going to do next.
I highly recommend this novel if you’re into mystery/thrillers or interested in experimental writing. It’s one of my favorite reads of the year.
FTC disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. I was not required to write a positive review. Since I usually only finish books I enjoy or am stimulated by for whatever reason and usually only blog about books I’ve finished, most of my reviews are about books I’ve enjoyed and therefore tend to be on the positive side. Life is too short to read books one doesn’t enjoy or learn something from. And life is certainly too short to waste time blogging about such books.