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Book Review: The Drowning Girl by Caitlin R. Kiernan (Audiobook narrated by Suzy Jackson)

A woman submerged in water with her eyes closed. The image has a blue tint.Summary:
India Morgan Phelps, Imp to her friends, is sure that there were two different Eva Cannings who came into her life and changed her world.  And one of them was a mermaid (or perhaps a siren?) and the other was a werewolf.  But Imp’s ex-girlfriend, Abalyn, insists that no, there was only ever one Eva Canning, and she definitely wasn’t a mermaid or a werewolf.  Dr. Ogilvy wants Imp to figure out for herself what actually happened. But that’s awfully hard when you have schizophrenia.

Review:
I’d heard that this book was a chilling mystery featuring GLBTQ characters and mental illness.  When I discovered it on Audible with an appealing-sounding narrator, I knew what I was listening to next.  This book is an engaging mystery that also eloquently captures the experience of having a mental illness that makes you question yourself and what you know while simultaneously giving a realistic glance into the queer community.

Imp is an unreliable first person narrator, and she fully admits this from the beginning.  She calls herself a madwoman who was the daughter of a madwoman who was a daughter of a madwoman too.  Mental illness runs in her family.  She states that she will try not to lie, but it’s hard to know for sure when she’s lying.  This is due to her schizophrenia.  Imp is writing down the story of what she remembers happening in journal style on her typewriter because she is trying to figure out the mystery of what exactly happened for herself.  The reader is just along for this ride.  And it’s a haunting, terrifying ride.  Not because of what Imp remembers happening with Eva Canning but because of being inside the mind of a person suffering from such a difficult mental illness.  Experiencing what it is to not be able to trust your own memories, to not be sure what is real and is not real, is simultaneously terrifying and heart-breaking.

Imp’s schizophrenia, plus some comorbid anxiety and OCD, and how she experiences and deals with them, lead to some stunningly beautiful passages.  This is particularly well seen in one portion of the book where she is more symptomatic than usual (for reasons which are spoilers, so I will leave them out):

All our thoughts are mustard seeds. Oh many days now. Many days. Many days of mustard seeds, India Phelps, daughter of madwomen, granddaughter, who doesn’t want to say a word and ergo can’t stop talking.  Here is a sad sad tale, woebegone story of the girl who stopped for the two strangers who would not could not could not would not stop for me. She. She who is me. And I creep around the edges of my own life. Afraid to screw off the mayonnaise lid and spill the mustard seeds. (Part 2, loc 55:35)

The thing that’s great about the writing in the book is that it shows both the beauty and pain of mental illness.  Imp’s brain is simultaneously beautiful for its artistic abilities and insight and a horrible burden in the ways that her mental illness tortures her and makes it difficult for her to live a “normal” life.  This is something many people with mental illness experience but find it hard to express.  It’s why many people with mental illness struggle with drug adherence.  They like the ability to function in day-to-day society and pass as normal but they miss being who they are in their own minds.  Kiernan eloquently demonstrates this struggle and shows the beauty and pain of mental illness.

Dr. Ogilvy and the pills she prescribes are my beeswax and the ropes that hold me fast to the main mast, just as my insanity has always been my siren. (Part 1, loc 4:08:48)

There is a lot of GLBTQ representation in the book, largely because Kiernan is clearly not just writing in a token queer character.  Imp is a lesbian, and her world is the world of a real-to-life lesbian.  She is not the only lesbian surrounded by straight people.  People who are part of the queer community, in multiple different aspects, are a part of Imp’s life.  Her girlfriend for part of the book is Abalyn, who is transwoman and has slept with both men and women both before and after her transition.  She never identifies her sexuality in the book, but she states she now prefers women because the men tend to not be as interested in her now that she has had bottom surgery.  The conversation where she talks about this with Imp is so realistic that I was stunned.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a conversation about both transitioning and the complicated aspects of dating for trans people that was this realistic outside of a memoir.  Eva Canning is bisexual.  It’s difficult to talk about Eva Canning in-depth without spoilers, so, suffice to say, Eva is out as bisexual and she is also promiscuous.  However, her promiscuity is not presented in a biphobic way.  Bisexual people exist on the full spectrum from abstinent to monogamous to poly to promiscuous.  What makes writing a bisexual character as promiscuous biphobic is whether the promiscuity is presented as the direct result of being bi, and Kiernan definitely does not write Eva this way.  Kiernan handles all of the queer characters in a realistic way that supports their three-dimensionality, as well as prevents any GLBTQphobia.

The plot is a difficult one to follow, largely due to Imp’s schizophrenia and her attempts at figuring out exactly what happened.  The convoluted plot works to both develop Imp’s character and bring out the mystery in the first two-thirds of the book.  The final third, though, takes an odd turn.  Imp is trying to figure out what she herself believes actually happened, and it becomes clear that what she ultimately believes happened will be a mix of reality and her schizophrenic visions.  That’s not just acceptable, it’s beautiful.  However, it’s hard to follow what exactly Imp chooses to believe.  I started to lose the thread of what Imp believes happens right around the chapter where multiple long siren songs are recounted.  It doesn’t feel like Imp is slowly figuring things out for herself and has made a story that gives her some stability in her life.  Instead it feels like she is still too symptomatic to truly function.  I never expected clear answers to the mystery but I did at least expect that it would be clear what Imp herself believes happened.  The lack of this removed the gut-wrenching power found in the first two-thirds of the book.

The audiobook narration by Suzy Jackson is truly stellar.  There are parts of Imp’s journal that must truly have been exceedingly difficult to turn into audio form, but Jackson makes them easy to understand in audio form and also keeps the flow of the story going.  Her voice is perfect for Imp.  She is not infantilized nor aged beyond her years.  She sounds like the 20-something woman she is.  I’m honestly not sure the story would have the same power reading it in print.  Hearing Imp’s voice through Jackson was so incredibly moving.

Overall, this book takes the traditional mystery and changes it from something external to something internal.  The mystery of what really happened exists due to Imp’s schizophrenia, which makes it a unique read for any mystery fan.  Further, Imp’s mental illness is presented eloquently through her beautiful first-person narration, and multiple GLBTQ characters are present and written realistically.  Recommended to mystery fans looking for something different, those seeking to understand what it is like to have a mental illness, and those looking to read a powerful book featuring GLBTQ characters whose queerness is just an aspect of who they are and not the entire point of the story.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Friday Fun! (Help Me Learn to Relax!)

April 13, 2012 9 comments

Hello my lovely readers!

You guys. I have a confession to make.  I am absolutely horrible at relaxing.  It’s true!  I have this constant drive to be doing doing doing and frankly my anxiety level tends to be high.  I mean, I couldn’t even handle the low-key pilates a trainer had me do at the gym. No. If it didn’t hurt and/or make me sweat, then it didn’t count.

I mean, I can’t even watch a movie unless I am simultaneously doing something else.  While cooking I listen to an audiobook or watch a documentary tv show.  While blogging I listen to a new cd.  I am constantly going and doing something even when I don’t have to.  I mean, I willingly drag my butt to three different grocery stores for the best quality and prices, which may sound reasonable until you realize that I don’t have a car and must tote everything on my back while walking or taking the T.

Oh and this week I was this close to starting some seeds going in my kitchen at 9pm.

Anyway, what I would looooove from you all would be some suggestions on how the hell to relax in a healthy manner, because fuck if I can figure it out.  I mean when I tried yoga tonight I spent half the session trying to convince myself not to start a fight with the chick in the back row whose ujjayi breathing was too loud.

Saying I am high strung is putting it lightly.

So!  Please pour in the suggestions.  I’ll wait over here.

Oh and btw I don’t have a bathtub or trust me I’d be lounging in one at least once a week.

Friday Fun (The Hill)

I’ve mentioned previously that in spite of an intense desire to be athletic, I am not, nor have I ever been.  I’m not talking about fit or in shape; I’m talking about that ability to just run up a hill or jump into a basketball game and not get hurt or…well, you get the picture.  Even at my most fit, when I routinely biked at least 15 miles a day and had rock-hard abs, I still got hit in the face with the ball playing backyard volleyball.  Heck, even when I would go running I certainly didn’t look good doing it.  When it comes to fitness, I am not gracefully athletic.  I am awkward.

Anyway, as part of my bid to get back in shape and relieve my anxiety and do good things for the planet, I’ve been biking to work.  Well, not all the way to work.  I can’t make it that far yet.  It takes two city buses to get to my job, so I’ve been biking to the bus connection, which luckily is just about half-way to work.  I live partway down one side of a very large hill.  In the mornings, I have a nice, gradual slope up for a couple of blocks followed by around five blocks of downhill easy awesomeness.  I’m sure you can see where this is going. 

In the evenings, I hit the hill at the end of my ride.  It’s like a giant middle finger taunting me about how much easier this all would have been if I’d just taken that second bus today.  I’ll be riding along, feeling pretty fit and great, passing all the cars stuck in stand-still traffic and happy in the knowledge that I’ve cut my commute time nearly in half.  Then the landmarks start popping up to remind me that the evil hill is nearly upon me.  Now this hill is not just a hill.  The top of it also happens to consist of a bridge, and bridges in Boston for some unearthly reason are narrower than the roads, which means cars that used to be arms-length away are suddenly at your elbow.  And this isn’t a pretty bridge over a river or a gully or anything.  No, no, it’s over the lovely commuter traffic on the Pike (translation: interstate, highway, Autobahn with a speed limit). 

So, I’m at the end of my ride, tired, hungry, sweaty, and there’s the hill.  I dutifully switch down a gear, but something’s fucked up in my bike’s gears and it won’t catch when I go down from 6 to 5.  I have to go 6 to 5 to 4 then back up to 5 for it to catch.  This makes me wobble for a moment in a way that makes the cars near me worry that I’m about to tip over into them.  (This is a fair concern as I did tip over into a car once when I was in highschool, but that’s another story).  Anyway, so after the wobbling, I try to regain my speed, generally to no avail.  And there I am, moving at a pace that eventually becomes so slow that pedestrians are passing me and giving me that “Why don’t you just get off and walk the bike?” look.  No matter how many gears I’ve moved up since starting this project (5, thank-you-very-much).  No matter how much faster I get.  No matter what, this hill is always just as difficult, and I always reach a near stand-still at the top of it.  

It just refuses to get any easier.  It refuses to stop making me look like an out-of-shape loser.  In a way, this hill reminds me a lot of my anxiety.  I want to just breeze through the day perfectly happy and not conjuring up new things to worry about and not get stuck in a loop of obsessive thoughts.  I want to get up that hill looking powerful and athletic.  But no matter what I do, no matter how I start the day, no matter how many times I tell myself this is going to be an awesome day and I’m going to do the right things and I’m going to treat the people I care about with the peaceful trust and respect they deserve, I still wind up sitting at home or in my cubicle at work with a racing heart and panicky thoughts powerhousing through my head.  

My anxiety is just like that hill.  It makes me look like an idiot and makes me feel real shitty about myself, but nothing I do seems to make me able to conquer it.  And yet, I get up each day and say “today is going to be the day I beat that goddammed hill.”  And that’s what I say every day about my anxiety too. Someday I am going to power through the ride and realize at the end of it that that hill felt non-existent, and someday I’ll be at the end of the day and realize that my anxiety is non-existent too.