Title: The Drowning House
Author: Elizabeth Black
Release Date: January 15, 2013
Publisher: Nan A. Talese
Genre: Literary Fiction, Literary Mystery
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Clare Porterfield left Galveston Island as a teenager after a devastating accident and hasn’t been back since. But now, she’s returned to the place she once called home to work on a photography archive. While she has mixed feelings about returning to the island, a personal tragedy and the slow death of her marriage have convinced her that it’s the right time to face her demons. As she becomes swept away in the past, Clare becomes consumed with discovering what truly happened to Stella Carraday, a woman who was supposed to have died during the hurricane of 1900.
The Drowning House is a novel absolutely oozing with atmosphere. Black captures Galveston Island, both past and present, amazingly well in this novel. The reader doesn’t just read about the island; it’s palpable, easy to feel and smell and taste. Through Black’s vivid descriptions, the reader begins to understand the nature of the island. The past and present are inexorably intertwined; one cannot understand Galveston Island’s current dynamics without having a thorough understanding of what came before.
Likewise, the people of the island are very well drawn in The Drowning House. They are a close, insular community, suspicious of outsiders. Whether you’re a tourist or a new resident, the islanders will neither like nor trust you. There’s an air of suspicion that permeates the entire novel, and it’s this uncertainty that Clare returns to at the beginning of the book.
While the overall people of the island are well-drawn, singular persons in The Drowning House are a little more difficult. Specifically, while the atmosphere and descriptions are amazing, the character development leaves something to be desired. Clare never fully endears herself to the reader; she keeps them at arm’s length, and it’s difficult to understand her personality and motivations. At times she seems selfish; as a result, seeing Clare come to a place of understanding and peace isn’t a driving force for the reader to continue with the book.
The mystery, however, is better written and interesting. It’s vague at times, much like the rest of The Drowning House, and builds slowly. As the book progresses, though, the mystery of what happened to Stella becomes more urgent. The twist and revelations at the end are satisfying and rewarding, but it’s not quite enough to make up for the weak character development. Overall, The Drowning House is a great choice if you’re looking for a beautiful, atmospheric read. Despite my issues with it, I’m looking forward to Elizabeth Black’s next novel.