This is a cankerous, demanding book that left me very conflicted. I’m still not completely sure of my opinion of it and as such, this might not be the review you were expecting it to be, but it is what it is. Warning: There Be Spoilers Ahead.
The Drowning Girl proposes a simple, yet fascinating theory. A haunting is reality’s version of an internet MEME. The more haunting is captured and then spread to others, the greater the power of said haunting. The narrator references the very strange story of the Aokigahara forest. In the shadow of Mount Fugi, there is a forest that happens to be the world’s second most popular suicide location. Spirituals believe that the energy of the ghosts of those that have taken their lives have permeated the woods causing strange paranormal activity. This was a local legend for centuries that was captured in Seicho Matsumoto’s novel Kuroi Jukai where two lovers decide to end their lives in the black sea of trees. Since the publication of this book in 1960, this national park has been the eastern mecca for suicides.
This is recounted by the narrator as a warning not to read her book. Reading her story is to spread the MEME and to willingly be inflected with her ghost story.
India Morgan Phelps, known as Imp, is a bright, shy girl that happens to suffer from a slight case of schizophrenia that has been exaggerated by a terrifying, yet beautiful event that changed her life forever and ended Imp’s relationship with her Abalyn. Imp attempts to figure out what happened to her and put her life back together by capturing the memories and locking them away in the form of the narrative which also forces the reader to view this story from the first person perspective of Imp and follow her in the journey to forcing herself to heal.
The unrealized narrator takes the reader on a slow journey through her thought process and memories. Such a trip is rarely linear. The story starts with Imp as a young girl viewing a painting in a museum. The Drowning Girl is a painting that might have captured a ghost story from the last century that may or may not have been inspired by a woman named Eva Canning. Imp feels a strange connection to this woman and feels almost threatened by the presence of the painting as though it is stirring uncomfortable feelings inside of her.
The crux of this event happened around Imp’s meeting of this strange woman Eva that reminds her of her favorite painting. It happens that in the present Imp remembers meeting this woman twice and she instinctually knows that one of these stories might be false. Depending upon the time of the memory, Imp might remember Eva as a mermaid or a werewolf. This duality is unconsciously echoed throughout the book represented by the transgendered Abalyn, who argues that while her body might have started life as a male that she had always been female in the soul. Eva might be remembered as having two identities, but only one of them has ever been real.
Imp has to face three different mysteries: which Eva was real, what happened to her, and can she have a life after being touched by strangeness.
I very much enjoy this book, but it was a slow and difficult read. That’s not an insult. I read the chapters slowly and enjoying thinking about the clues. Kiernan’s style is normally very lyrical and clean. This time around, it is much more personal and loose. I couldn’t stop reading.
I recommend the book, but I still couldn’t rate it fully. That’s not a bad thing.