TOP SHELF: The Haunting of an Unreliable Narrator - The Monitor: Life

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TOP SHELF: The Haunting of an Unreliable Narrator

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Posted: Thursday, May 23, 2013 8:14 am

The Drowning Girl is an award-winning fantasy novel by Irish-born American writer Caitlín R. Kiernan, considered one of the foremost authors of contemporary weird fiction (in the tradition of Poe and Lovecraft). The book is a richly rewarding literary tour de force that challenges readers to navigate a narrative in which all the normal rules are questioned or subverted by possibly the most engaging but unreliable narrators I’ve come across in years.

India Morgan Phelps (nicknamed “Imp” since childhood) is a 20-something woman living on her own in Rhode Island, supplementing her trust fund with low-paying jobs. Imp is also schizophrenic, and both her mother and grandmother suffered from varying degrees of mental illness. She has decided to attempt to write down the story of her being haunted by a strange woman who may be the same person depicted in several local folktales and a famous painting: a girl who drowned more than a century ago and whose spirit has haunted the area ever since. Except that Eva, the naked woman Imp remembers having met for the first time twice in one year on long drives, may actually be a siren. Or a werewolf. One thing is certain: her appearance in Imp’s life sets the mentally disturbed woman on a quest to untangle the strangely twining strands of the recent past, exploring her own shifting, complex and oddly filtered perception of the world to try to understand the reality of her haunting and its impact on her life and love (Imp’s lover Abalyn is driven away by her obsession with this creature). Along the way, readers are treated to many stories, both autobiographical and fictional, that build a life mosaic that is ultimately more satisfying than a traditional ending would have been.

It bears mentioning that when the final word is read, neither the reader nor Imp may have exactly the firm grasp on what “really” happened that they might have hoped for. But Kiernan has so expertly constructed her labyrinthine narrative that I still felt quite satisfied. Like myths or legends, there is no final truth, just the meaning of the story for the listener, its psychological impact. The Drowning Girl has been nominated for a Nebula this year, and I definitely believe it deserves recognition. The book is a perfect example of how genre novels (science fiction, fantasy, horror, etc.) can use the tools of weird fiction to make profound statements about the human condition.

David Bowles is a writer, educator and editor. You can contact him at

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