India Morgan Phelps—Imp to everyone she and we come to care about over the course of The Drowning Girl: A Memoir—is insane. Probably. Maybe. Possibly. But in any case “there’s crazy and then there are crazy people who believe in mermaids and werewolves and unicorns and fairies and shit” (p. 228), a decent distinction which, indecently, leaves Imp doubly damned, because she’s a disorganised schizophrenic from a longish line of asylum attendees, tormented in the interim by lunatic visions of a spectre in the skin of a girl.
So what’s her word worth? In all likelihood, not a lot. Perhaps nothing. Or else, equally, everything. Assuredly it’s all we have to go on in the ninth novel from one of dark fantasy’s most masterful artists. This is Imp’s memoir, after all—her suggestively subjective account of certain incredible events—and though there are other characters sewn into the road of needles she takes, she is the author of each and every one; we only ever see them through her uncanny, meandering eye. Thus, the question is, was, will always be: is Imp’s fly-by-night narration enough to unpick the enigmas within this eminently telling text?
The simple fact is, it isn’t. But the truth is, it is.
Betwixt these ideas, an initially bewildering hither and thither. A perpetual, oftentimes distressing tension between what is true and what is factual—to which I would append, in turn, what is false and what is fiction. As Imp cautions herself and by extension us in the early-going, “there’s no point doing this thing if all I can manage is a lie . . . Which is not to say every word will be factual. Only that every word will be true. Or as true as I can manage” (p. 6).
To wit, Caitlín R. Kiernan’s latest and arguably, yes, her greatest, is rife with wrongness. With inconsistencies, reiterations, contradictions, omissions and not a few outright lies—and of course these are only the embellishments Imp herself confesses to in the text. Ultimately it falls to the reader to judge what other fabrications Imp may or may not have stitched into her curious quilt, and to determine too what the truth of the text is—if it is. To divine—as above, so below—what is true and what is factual, and differentiate falsity from fiction.
Certainly, as our sole narrator, Imp is utterly untrustworthy. She does not even trust herself—or so she says. But brilliantly, her essential unreliability is as crucial an aspect of The Drowning Girl: A Memoir as the titular presence herself: an impossible porcelain person. Which is to say a ghostly, glowing girl called Eva Canning, who appears before Imp in two borrowed forms—as a mermaid and a wolf-wife—on two separate and wholly incompatible occasions.
Mine’s not a simple haunting, obviously. The sort you usually read about, or hear around a campfire. I didn’t merely feel a sudden and inexplicable child in a dark room. I didn’t wake to the sound of rattling chains or moaning. I was not shocked at an ectoplasmic woman drifting down a corridor. Those are only cartoons, caricatures or phantoms, invented by people who’ve never suffered (or been graced by) an actual, true, factual haunting. (pp. 44-5)
Again that distinction! Indeed, it positively permeates the text—a pernicious meme in miniature—from the unnerving impression of uncertainty overlaid upon every significant scene, every conversation and encounter with the uncanny, to the ambiguity inherent in Imp’s justification of her written account and our reading of it, against her explicit assertions.
Dr. Ogilvy would probably tell me that I’m exhibiting ‘avoidant behavior,’ the way I’m going about writing this ghost story. But it’s mine, isn’t it? Yes, and so it’s mine to tell however I wish. It’s mine with which to tarry and stall and get to any particular point in my own sweet time. There is no Constant Reader to appease, only me and me alone. (pp. 33-4)
As to that: though Imp insists that she has in fact constructed this elaborate manuscript to exorcise her own demons—not, in other words, for any audience at all—in truth she goes to some lengths to excuse and explain and entertain herself, thus us. In the beginning she only muses: “It’s a myth that crazy people don’t know they’re crazy. Many of us are surely as capable of epiphany and introspection as anyone else, maybe more so. I suspect we spend far more time thinking about our thoughts than do sane people” (p. 3). In the end, however, as her formerly irresolvable hauntings begin to converge—to come together in one of dark fantasy’s most grotesquely memorable sex scenes—she almost apologises: “I know now that my ghost story isn’t the ghost story I thought it was, the one I set out to tell. My stories shape-shift like mermaids and werewolves. A lycanthropy of nouns, verbs, and adjectives, subjects and predicates, and so on and so forth” (p. 288).
This, then, is a book of lies, yet there is truth to it, too. The Drowning Girl: A Memoir is unquestionably Caitlín R. Kiernan’s most ambitious long-form fiction to date, and its successes are multifarious, its failures truly few. I will say that the twofold conclusion the esteemed author eventually arrives at feels unfortunately hastened, but this doesn’t subtract dramatically from the inexorable impact of The End, and again, “you really have no notion how delightful it will be, was, at the inevitable convergence of those two roads full sail” (p. 214). Kiernan’s prose is in the interim as precise and appealing as ever, if a little less aesthetically poetic by dint of Imp’s disorder (or discordant order). Similarly, her capricious characters ring true from their tailbones to their tippy-toes, and however far-fetched it is in fact, there is nothing false about this fiction.
Niall Alexander (firstname.lastname@example.org) reviews speculative fiction of various shapes and sizes—whether in film, literature, video games, or comics—honestly, the lot—for a number of genre-oriented resources, including Tor.com, Starburst Magazine, and Strange Horizons. Failing all of the above, as is the case most days, he’ll happily bend your ear over at his blog, The Speculative Scotsman.