Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Girl Who Stopped Swimming by Joshilyn Jackson

While Laurel Hawthorne’s life seems to be practically perfect—nice house in suburban Victorianna, beautiful daughter, great marriage—all is thrown into question when one night she is visited by the ghost of her daughter’s friend, who has just drowned in her backyard pool. Thus begins Joshilyn Jackson’s new novel The Girl Who Stopped Swimming. While many of you are thinking that this isn’t the sort of book I would usually read, I must confess that you are right and also that I really liked this book, recommended by Jenny Davidson at Light Reading.

Though the death is ruled accidental, Laurel believes it to be anything but and enlists the help of her estranged older sister to figure out what really happened. Through the novel, she undergoes a life altering journey triggering startling revelations about her family’s past, the true state of her ‘perfect’ marriage, and what really happened that evening.

Though I ultimately enjoyed the novel, I found it quite confusing at the start. Laurel at first seemed more of a collection of traits than an actual person, and her penchant for seeing ghosts and sleepwalking didn’t rea
lly mesh with the naturalistic tone. Yet as I got deeper into the story and began to understand the characters a bit better, I started to warm up to it. Everything leads up to solving the girl’s death, but it’s the characters that are really more of a puzzle.

Laurel’s past is haunted by the memory of DeLop, a former mining community where her mother grew up. That seedy upbringing shaped her mother’s life, which in turn shaped the life of her girls, Laurel and her sister Thalia. Yet Laurel has brought into her home a young teenage cousin named Bet Clemmens, who back in DeLop lives in abject poverty.

Though Jackson constantly alludes to Thalia throughout the story, she doesn’t actually show up until about the halfway point. She is a natural born actor who thrives on conflict and married a gay man, making her pretty much the opposite of Laurel. Their relationship is fragmented and complicated; Thalia at times is so inconsiderate of her sister’s feelings that it makes one wonder why she hasn’t broken off all contact before this point. But their common upbringing binds them, and their shared childhood trauma gives each a unique insight into the young girl’s accidental death. On top of this, Thalia peels away the anesthetized cover of Laurel’s marriage and forces her to look at her life in a different light, though the outcome of this examination is not what either of them would have suspected.

While Jackson’s prose is adequate, her real strength lies in her ability to build complex and fascinating characters. No matter how minor, each character she creates is evocative, even if they are only referenced and never seen. However, the memory sections dealing with Laurel’s uncle did fall a bit short; without giving anything away, I don’t really understand exactly why he did what he did.

And perhaps the most important aspect of such a story, the mystery of why the girl drowned, is maintained throughout the novel with an expert touch. Even when the end is revealed, one realizes how it makes perfect sense yet also was so well hidden. We discover things as Laurel herself discovers them; when she is misled, we are as well.

This was the first book by Jackson that I have read, yet I doubt it will be the last. This isn’t the sort of book one can dismiss as ChickLit, but a talented Southern author who has great skill with characterization. The Girl Who Stopped Swimming is an entertaining and quick read that you should very well take a look at.

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