Saturday, August 21, 2010

Review: Water Wings by Kristen den Hartog

There is something about seeing the word water in the title that draws me to a book. It's an appeal I have tried to explain but haven't quite nailed down. Add to the title words, a cover picture of water of any sort and a plot that has a river running through it and I'm a complete and total gonner. This book promised all of the above even if it ultimately went far afield from its promises.

Returning home for their mother's wedding to shoe store owner Reg, both Hannah and Vivian and their cousin Wren look back on their shared past, starting to understand as adults those things that they couldn't understand as children. Their beautiful mother Darlene is, in so many ways, the same dependent woman she had been in their childhood, both before and after their charismatic father Mick died in a freak boating accident. The narration does much to illuminate Hannah, Vivian, and Wren's characters, even if it isn't enough. Hannah has always been the dreamy sister, the one with synesthesia, the one highly attuned to the tremors and fault lines running through her parents' marriage. Vivian is the practical one, the casually unkind one who picks at her sister, the one who makes sure that everything runs as it should no matter what the circumstances. And Wren is the outsider, not only because she is not a sister, just a cousin, but also because she was born with webbed hands and is therefore used to the small cruelties of life shown so clearly in the community in which they live.

This book is rife with the secrets each character holds close to her heart, secrets overheard, witnessed, and suspected. It is a masterful portrait of a dysfunctional family after it has lost its charismatic center (Mick) and must rely on superficial beauty (Darlene). It is painful and haunting and the reader will wish for more for the emotionally injured young girls. The narrative moves slowly through the past, exposing memories and unearthing long forgotten truths. The present day portions are not quite as compelling as the past portions, perhaps because the girls, even once they learn what has drawn their mother to Reg, still don't fully understand Darlene's motivation or who she has become. There's also something quintessentially Canadian about the narrative here, something that goes beyond setting and manifests itself in a feeling.

I have to admit that I didn't love this meditative novel but I do recognize that it was complexly constructed and well-written. The disconnectedness pulled at me and slowed me down. I never quite felt we understood the characters, despite having sections narrated from their own experience. In looking at the reviews at amazon I am clearly alone in this slight disappointment though. Are you someone who has read it and disagree with me? I'd love to hear why.

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