Krait reviews The Drowning Girl by Caitlin R. Kiernan


Caitlin R. Kiernan, known for her strange dark fiction, hits it out of the park with The Drowning Girl. The protagonist, Imp — India Morgan Phelps — writes the book as a memoir to seal away the events of her past several years. Imp is schizophrenic and struggles with her perceptions of the world once they start blending into a strange mix of fairy tale and horror story. Haunted by mermaids and memories she can’t quite trust, Imp turns to a memoir to try and find her reality, once and for all.

Kiernan’s writing doesn’t always work for me, but I loved The Drowning Girl. Her writing is immensely rich with allusions – I found myself googling the unfamiliar and highlighting and saving my favorites. Imp speaks (or types) in poetry and song lyrics, weaving back and forth between the past and the present, between her fiction and her reality. The book is perfect for reading aloud your favorite passages – and with Kiernan’s lovely wordplay, they’re almost inevitable.

However, a note of caution for readers. As the brief summation suggests, The Drowning Girl deals heavily with themes of mental illness and suicide. Suicide reoccurs often as a theme, and Imp speaks frankly about her attempts and those of her family. Additionally, Imp’s girlfriend Abalyn is trans, and while Imp accepts her immediately, she does ask some inappropriate questions and use some inappropriate terminology. Still, Abalyn is a complex and lovingly handled character, and I’m very glad that she’s a part of the story.

More than a week after I finished it, The Drowning Girl is still running through my head — perhaps because, as Imp put it, hauntings are contagious. Kiernan’s writing is lush and believable, blending prose and poetry and leaving the reader to wonder, just as Imp does: what was truth, was was fiction, what was delusion, what was magic. It won’t leave you warm and fuzzy: there’s no real ending, no plot threads tied up with a neat bow, but the conclusion is still satisfying.

If, like me, you read and enjoy the book, I have one last suggestion: two of the fictional paintings that play major roles in Imp’s story have been recreated with the author’s blessing and can be found on her livejournal here:

They’re definitely worth a look.