Tuesday, September 04, 2018

the last book I read

Drowning Ruth by Christina Schwarz.

Amanda Starkey is a doting and dutiful aunt to little Ruth, taking on parental responsibilities after Amanda's sister (and Ruth's mother) Mathilda drowned after falling through the ice between the family's house on a Wisconsin lake island and the mainland.

So far so tragic and yet heart-warmingly stoical. Perhaps. But why is Amanda evasive about the exact circumstances of Mathilda's death, particularly when Mathilda's husband Carl returns from World War I and understandably has some questions about how he unknowingly became a widower in his absence? And why does Ruth keep insisting that she drowned too on that same fateful night?

Obviously we're going to find all these things out. Equally obviously the full details are only going to emerge right at the end, and you can't just skip straight to that bit because then you'd have a 20-page novel. Besides, the revelations only carry any emotional impact if you care to some degree about the characters. So we get some back-story. Amanda is six years or so older than Mathilda, and very much conscious of being the gangly awkward taciturn ugly duckling in comparison with her pretty, sunny younger sister, despite loving her dearly. And when Mathilda marries Carl Amanda is mildly resentful of his intrusion into their all-female world.

There is much jumping back and forward in time in this section of the book (it settles down into a more linear pattern later on once Carl has conveniently removed himself from the narrative by getting a job on a Great Lakes steamer that takes him away for months on end) - Ruth and Mathilda as children, Ruth, Mathilda and Carl before the war, Amanda, Carl and Ruth after the war - and the narrative shifts between three viewpoints: the omniscient narrator, Ruth, and Amanda. From all this tricksiness what we get is a view of the main protagonists: Amanda spiky, reserved, fiercely protective of Mathilda and Ruth, hardened slightly by her experiences as a wartime nurse in Milwaukee but still quite unworldly in other ways, as we see when she allows herself to be seduced by local entrepreneur and serial cad Clement Owens; Carl basically decent, not too bright, hampered by a wartime shrapnel wound which restricts his mobility, slightly bewildered by his daughter, vaguely resentful of Amanda for her proximity to Mathilda's death and unwillingness to tell him much about it; Ruth a strong-willed, independent girl haunted in some ill-defined way by her experiences the night her mother died. The person we get to know least well is Mathilda, but of course she spends something like half the narrative being dead.

It is in the wake of Amanda's fleeting, instantly regretted and seemingly inconsequential dalliance with Clement Owens that the plot starts to thicken. For those confused (and who could blame you) about the timeline, this is during Carl's wartime absence. Amanda finds herself pregnant, catastrophic news for a respectable spinster in 1916, confides in Mathilda, and the two of them cook up a plan to take themselves off, go and live in the house on the island until the baby is born, and then claim it was left with them by some passing girl that Amanda gave medical assistance to and either raise it themselves or pass it off for adoption by someone else.

It's about time we had another time-jump, though, so let's fast-forward a few years to when Ruth is in school. Ruth is a quirky and self-contained child regarded with some suspicion by her peers until she is befriended and given the implicit seal of approval by Imogene, the most popular girl in school despite being a couple of years younger than Ruth. Ruth excitedly reports back to Amanda about her new-found friendship only to be slightly wrong-footed by Amanda's lukewarm response. Of course what we know, since we're privy to Amanda's internal monologue, is that she's all HOLY UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES Ruth is now best buds with my own secret daughter who I gave to a woman in town to be brought up as her own.

We move on a few years and Ruth is now a young woman of twenty-one or so (Imogene being around eighteen). Ruth and Imogene are still best friends and are part of a little social set that attends a local college and messes around with boats on the lake. All is well until Ruth lets slip another nugget in conversation with Amanda, not only is one of their set none other than Clement Owens' son Arthur, he and Imogene have a fledgling romance going. HOLY UNINTENDED FREAKY INCESTUOUS CONSEQUENCES etc. Amanda panics and confesses all to Ruth about the truth of Imogene's origins, including the interesting snippet that she was born the same day Mathilda died. Between them Ruth and Amanda come up with a half-arsed scheme (a faked letter purporting to be from Arthur) for warding off the spectre of mutant two-headed children which, somewhat to Ruth's surprise, works. Imogene heads off to Chicago to seek her fortune, still unaware of her true origins, while Ruth decides to stick around and help out with running the family farm.

In these calmer circumstances the true events of the fateful icy night can be revealed, although after a series of incremental revelations throughout the story there isn't very much left we don't know: Amanda changed her mind about letting Mathilda bring up the baby and fled across the frozen lake, Ruth followed her, Mathilda pursued Ruth to bring her back, grabbed her and the struggle and their combined weight took them through the ice. The only question was whether Amanda had any sinister involvement and how she got the deep bite scar on her hand, but it turns out this was inflicted by Mathilda in a nobly self-sacrificing leave-me-save-yourselves moment.

This is one of those books which is tremendously thrilling but which is built on some plot contrivances which you suspect might collapse under their own implausibility if examined too closely. Amanda gets carted off to some sort of mental institution for ill-defined reasons (presumably some sort of delayed PTSD) some time after Carl returns from the war, but seems eventually just to decide to pull herself together and come home again without any long-term consequences. Carl vanishes from the story just before the fast-forward zoom (after which Ruth becomes the novel's central character) and is never heard from again; you'd think Ruth might exhibit some curiosity about her father, but apparently not. And it's not clear what narrative purpose Clement Owens' death shortly after his rendezvous with Amanda serves other than to keep alive until the closing pages the possibility that she might be an unreliable narrator and a murderess.

None of that quibbling should detract from the book's readability, though, and I enjoyed it. It does take a little while to get going but the second half in particular zips by very entertainingly. Amanda and Ruth are engaging characters in their own different ways; by contrast all the male characters are either well-meaning dimwits or bastards. Dark icy water with all its attendant danger and ability to hide murky secrets is perfect territory for a mystery - Surfacing (a very different book in all other respects) made use of a similar plot device. My copy carries prominent testimonial blurb from Anita Shreve, and if you didn't know the author of Drowning Ruth it's possible it might have been one of hers. The psychological thriller elements and murky secrets from the past being exhumed carry just a whiff of Barbara Vine, as well.

If you examine closely the image above you'll see that the cover of my copy (apparently a promotional copy given away with Woman & Home magazine) carries a logo informing the prospective reader that it was a recommendation of Oprah's Book Club, in September 2000. As with We Were The Mulvaneys and The Corrections this triggered a momentary snobbish sneer which I take no pride in, but, well, there it is. Other Oprah recommendations on this blog are Paradise, The Poisonwood Bible and The Road.

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