This is Valerie Mills-Milde’s debut novel and it is a superb one. Located on the north shore of Lake Erie where there was once a thriving freshwater fishing industry, After Drowning is a semi-psychological and vastly intriguing novel about lives shattered by events past and present in the fictional town of Port, where a vestigial fishing industry still exists in company with gentrified tourist destinations, and of course, the beach.
The Lake, The Lives
Lake Erie, the fourth largest of the five Great Lakes, has had a troubled environmental history due to over-fishing, pollution and zebra mussel invasion. It is against this backdrop that the Beau family struggles to make a living through fishing.
“She [Pen] looks at the lake, pinned down by a heavy layering of cloud. Port is difficult on days like these, the lake’s moods souring life in the town. A septic place to live, and yet people persist.”
After Drowning opens by describing one of the boats (or “tugs” as they are called) is on fire and a man named Andy is pulling bodies out of the fire, one of them being Keaton Beau before collapsing on the docks.
It is some time after this that Keaton’s father Rod takes their tug out on the lake alone with a storm brewing. The tug capsizes and Rod’s body is never recovered. Soon thereafter Keaton mysteriously leaves Port.
Skip ahead a few years and we are with Keaton’s younger sister Pen and her four-year old daughter Maddie enjoying a day at the beach. Maddie loves to collect items she finds on the beach and approaches some bikers sunning themselves and drinking beer. One of them, “T” converses with Maddie before Pen can call her away. Then, there is a commotion down the shore as someone is missing from a group of special care home residents out for a day on the beach. T dives into the water to try to save the drowning man, but arrives too late. Pen gathers up Maddie and returns home while sirens sound in the background.
Later, T is involved in a massacre of bikers at a rented farm-house outside of Port.
It is these incidents that cut through the lives of Pen, Keaton and T as well as others like Andy (who is left scarred from burns he sustained in the rescue), Pen’s mother Irene and to some extent Maddie.
I called this novel semi-psychological because we are taken along with Pen as she tries to sort out her emotions in dealing with a drowned father, a missing brother, a recovered alcoholic mother and her own estranged marriage to Jeff, Maddie’s ever-patient father. The biker massacre affects her as well, for she encountered T several times around Port after the drowning, so she tries to understand how someone who tried to save a life could just as easily take one.
“She sorts the images and tries to find some meaning. Maybe she is becoming unstable, the way she was after Maddie was born, although this feels different, less like defeat and more like a pressing desire to know. She is wrung-out, indecisive, preoccupied with her thoughts, her dreams.”
By Chapter 10, about 1/3 of the way through the book, already the author has introduced about 10 characters which may sound like a lot, but they are introduced through the past as well as the present and all in such a way as to not make the narrative appear too ‘busy’. As well, Ms. Mills-Milde’s character development and their physical descriptions are just enough so that we can picture them with our mind’s eye. I really appreciated this since I could easily keep them all straight in my mind, being able to identify with them all as individuals and their own situations. There are no unlikable characters in After Drowning. Even the biker T has a conscience, but orders from above have controlled him for so long he is locked into a lifestyle he would like to escape, but cannot just walk away from.
After Drowning is an intriguing, well-paced and mysteriously captivating story of everyday lives impacted by tragic events and the collateral damage they inflict as well as the long road back to recovery and reconciliation. Certainly, one of the best novels I have read this year and I am long-listing it for the 2016 “The Very Best” Book Awards.