Caitlin Kiernan has published an immense number of short stories, and a good number of novels since the 90s. And yet I retain the impression she remains largely unknown to the reading public. Perhaps due to the initial focus on goth and punk and like motifs, nevertheless, she has become one of the best stylists in the game, not to mention delved ever deeper into the human facets of her stories regardless of motif—her 2009 The Red Tree a great example, and arguably her best novel to that point in time. In 2012 Kiernan topped herself with The Drowning Girl, potentially penning her magnum opus and dark fantasy masterpiece, in the process.
Framed as a downward spiral, The Drowning Girl is the story of India Morgan Phelps—known as Imp to many. Openly schizophrenic, Imp tells of her mother and grandmother’s mental issues, their demise in suicide, and her likely road to the same end. One evening while out for a drive, Imp finds a hitchhiker named Eva Canning standing naked beside the road. Reminding Imp of a girl from a painting she has loved since childhood, Imp provides Canning a bed for the night, and the next day sees the woman on her way. Trouble follows. Canning turning up at Imp’s work and at various points on her daily routine, it appears she has a stalker. Dealing with relationship issues, Imp takes little notice. But things start to crumble. Other Cannings seeming to appear, her medication no longer having strong effect, her employment not going as planned—these and a variety of other matters force Imp into a new perspective on life. Question is, is she able to survive?
For anyone who has read Kiernan’s previous novel, The Red Tree, the framework of The Drowning Girl will feel very familiar. Artist with mental issues. Non-cis relationship problems. Suicidal thoughts. Folklore and local history feeding into main character’s story. Elements of the dark/psychological fantastic that accentuate rather than define the story. An exploratory, revelatory, deeply personal narrative that feels as cathartic as it does real. Wonderfully deliberate reveal and flow. And I could go on.
But The Drowning Girl remains a singular novel. Upon completion, I came to think of it as the bookend to The Red Tree: same shelf, different side. Where The Red Tree steams with summer heat and the dark influence of the titular tree, The Drowning Girl is a more fluid (natch), dynamic novel that possesses one or two additional layers of narrative. Fiction within fiction (the two embedded short stories are superb) and a sub-theme involving the Canning alter-ego, meaning it’s fair to say The Drowning Girl is the more sophisticated novel, especially considering the quality integration of these additional elements.
While I was at first skeptical of Kiernan’s prose (for much of the novel it seemed she was not executing as she could), it suddenly became apparent the tone was deliberate. There is one section of the novel, about two-thirds of the way through, that is absolutely masterful. Kiernan switches gears, shifting into a stream-of-consciousness with magic-realist undertones that not only addresses changes happening within the main character in literary fashion, but likewise offers a a few barrel rolls and loop-de-loops of prose to show how much ‘in character’ Kiernan had been restraining herself to that point. Not medicore writing, it simply was Imp in proper, epistolary form. When breaking free, the novel’s stars flickerered into life, and the prose shines. Just superb.
Looking at Kiernan’s oeuvre to date, I am woefully behind in reading. Nevertheless, there is an instinctual part of my reading brain that believes The Drowning Girl is Kiernan’s magnum opus to date, and perhaps is even a transcendent piece of literature at large. The narrative control, balancing the various pieces within the story of a schizophrenic. Leading the reader along with relevant prose, only to blow the doors off on what is really possible. Masterfully presenting how sane mentally ill people are. And the rich, blood-pumping, human heart that drives the story. All are magnificent. And on and on I could go. But just go read it for yourself.