Fear of Drowning by Susan White

I have previously reviewed two of Ms. White’s books, The Memory Chair (2015) and Waiting for Still Water (2016) both of which I enjoyed very much. While some of her titles may be considered “Young Adult” she recently informed me that: “in my mind, the YA/adult distinction is more about marketing than readership.” That may be true, for Ms. White’s stories (at least the ones I have read) have an age-less readability about them. They neither ‘dumb down’ nor unnecessarily sophisticate the written word, making the reader feel ignorant or unschooled. What she does best is write a good story, with characters that are crisply defined. Fear of Drowning (2019, Acorn Press) is no different, although the manner in which the story is presented is quite different, and I’ll get to that in a moment.

The story opens with Lilianne speaking to us from her home in Kingston Ontario. The year is 1993.

When I was a child, shadows were a mystery to me. At certain times my shadow might tower over me, when in another light it would crouch and bow before me as a servant bows to his master. The past, like overlapping dark shadows, was as much a mystery to me as the formations of my childhood shadows. The past was always present, always bidding me to delve deeper to bring the shadow of my memories into a brighter and more discernible light. In these, my final days, the shadows of my past were as dark as the blackest ink, but still I tried to illuminate them. I refused to move from this house. Before accepting that, Clara kept up her gentle but forceful persuasion, trying to get me to sell and move into a nearby seniors’ home. Her reasons seemed sound enough but were in such opposition to all I cared about. This house held my past, and that was what kept me going. In many ways, it was this house that kept me afloat all the years I was so far away from the protection of its red brick walls. This house was the lifeline that kept me from drowning, kept Lillianne McDonough from disappearing, and I intended to keep a firm hold on that lifeline.

Clara is Lilianne’s daughter and she has her own daughter Leah, whose daughter is Hilary. So, at this point in time, we have four generations of McDonough women who all speak to us from their vantage points, and from different time periods. Each chapter references the speaker’s name and year at the top. After we are introduced to Lilianne in the opening chapter, we are whisked back in time to 1883 and Marion Kingston (who is no relation to Lilianne, but plays an integral part in her life story) relates, how as a three-year-old, she witnessed the drowning death of her mother near Saint John New Brunswick. Once these two main protagonists are presented to the reader, the story begins to unfold.

I mentioned that the story is presented in a different way, and it certainly is unique. Now, I have encountered stories that go back and forth in time with, typically, one character narrating. But six? At times I felt like a tennis ball being lobbed back and forth (and sideways too)! I will admit I occasionally grew frustrated in not being able to keep up with the shifting characters and changing times, assimilating what I already knew with any new revelations their next appearance brought out. A little patience on the reader’s part is needed, and it will become clearer as you progress through the novel.

While there is a distinct lack of male characters (any that do appear are minor in comparison to any female ones), the women are strong, assertive and do what they can to cope with the existing societal mores at the time. In fact, I see the initial setting of Fear of Drowning as a pastiche of Brideshead Revisited, with Marion in the role of Lady Marchmain, only it is not religion she devoutly adheres to, but maintaining status amongst the wealthy families of industrial magnates of Chicago. It is her desire to have her daughter Cordelia marry into one of these families, and parties are given toward this end in the Randolph summer house on their private island in the Thousand Islands. However, Marion’s best-laid plans are derailed and Lilianne, who is serving as the Randolph’s housemaid, has a solution worthy of wise King Solomon. However, years later, upon being questioned about the out-workings of her plan, Lillianne reflects: “…had I truly considered the magnitude of what I’d done? I saw this arrangement as my path to a better future—but had I instead locked myself into a future I had absolutely no control over? What price was I paying for my release from being a housemaid and a person of no value? Was I not still in the employ of Marion Randolph? Lilianne will have to face the facts of her decision as her daughters and grand-daughters begin to seek answers to Lilianne’s past.

I’m happy to say that Fear of Drowning continues in the fine tradition of Susan White’s past novels. Good stories with lessons to be learned and responsibilities to be taken. High-grade reading for all ages. Add it to your summer reading list!

Fear of Drowning by Susan White
Acorn Press

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