The Cure for Drowning by Loghan Paylor

The Cure for Drowning by Loghan Paylor is a rich, beautifully wrought family saga about love, truth and identity. Every family has stories that help to define who they are. The McNair family, struggling Irish farmers in southern Ontario, proudly trace their story back to their great-great-grandfather who fell in love with, and married, a selkie. The selkie had shed her sealskin to live with him and give him a son. 

The sea salt had entered my great-great-grandfather’s blood when the selkie first grasped him between her thighs and bit his lip.  Much as he feared the sea, its salt ran in the veins of their first-born son and all his descendants. The sweat that had dripped from my great-great-grandfather’s brow on the dark earth as he cleared these fields had poisoned the soil.  The harder he worked and the more he sweated, the less fertile his land became. 

It is this origin story that shapes the McNair’s history. In a prologue to the text, we are told that “a ten-year-old girl walked into the forest with her two brothers and didn’t come out again.” This evocative beginning lets us know that Kathleen drowned in an icy river, lured into the watery depths by lights and voices calling to her.  Her mother Caroline, unwilling to accept that her daughter has drowned, utters Gaelic prayers and evokes Celtic magic in a tireless effort to revive her. When Kathleen does indeed rouse from her near-fatal experience, she has been reborn and needs to relearn speech and other basic functions. Her core being has been altered, however, and her family views her as a changeling, renaming her Kit.  

Spanning the period 1931-1953, the narrative is shared by Kit and Rebekah, the daughter of a German doctor who has recently relocated his family from Montreal to the small farming community in order to escape anti-German sentiment. Rebekah befriends Kit and also Kit’s two brothers, Landon and Jep. An unconventional love triangle forms between Kit, Rebekah and Landon. While the intense connection between Kit and Rebekah is powerful, Landon’s heteronormative courtship is encouraged by both families. 

The legacy of the selkie continues to be felt throughout the novel.  Kit is forced by her mother to wear a dress to church, and she writes:

I fled out the door the moment church was over, leaving my family to shake hands and exchange greetings with our neighbours. The sooner I reached home, the sooner I could shed these clothes and begin to breathe again. 

Removing the clothes that are representative of the enforced trappings of a sexuality that does not fit is akin to the shedding of the selkie’s sealskin, and is therefore a fundamental conceit in the novel. Paylor shows us again and again how important it is to emerge as a fully realized and empowered individual, through the deliberate removal of layered expectations and the conscious donning of a chosen identity.   

Paylor shows us again and again how important it is to emerge as a fully realized and empowered individual, through the deliberate removal of layered expectations and the conscious donning of a chosen identity.  

Distraught by Landon’s desire to marry Rebekah, Kit leaves the farm. She steals the clothes and identification papers of a young boy on a train and joins the Royal Air Force, becoming a fearless and decorated war hero.  Landon meanwhile joins the Navy, and Rebekah and her family retreat to Montreal in the face of local anti-German hostilities. 

The characters in this novel are beautifully developed and the dynamic between them is searing and insightful: Kit and Rebekah are sympathetic, well-drawn non-binary lovers, while Landon represents the heterosexual norm that exudes the security of respectability.  In a poignant twist, when the three main characters are reunited at the end of the tale, it is the self-centered Landon who is celebrated as the prodigal son while Kit’s many accomplishments and selfless contributions are entirely overlooked.  This is a deeply moving book, filled with historic detail, vividly drawn descriptions, and layered with haunting insights about family, loyalty, and truth.  An incredible Canadian novel. Highly recommended.

LOGHAN PAYLOR is a queer, trans author who lives in Abbotsford, British Columbia. Their short fiction and essays have previously appeared in Room and Prairie Fire, among others. Paylor has a Master’s in creative writing from the University of British Columbia, and a day job as a professional geek. The Cure for Drowning is their first novel.

Publisher: Penguin Random House (Jan 30, 2024)
Language: English
Paperback 5.8″ x 8.2″ | 400 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1-0390-0645-4

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Lucy E.M. Black (she/her/hers) is the author of The Marzipan Fruit Basket, Eleanor Courtown, Stella’s Carpet and The Brickworks.  Her new short story collection, Class Lessons: Stories of Vulnerable Youth will be released October 2024. Her award-winning short stories have been published in Britain, Ireland, USA and Canada. She is a dynamic workshop presenter, experienced interviewer and freelance writer.  She lives with her partner in the small lakeside town of Port Perry, Ontario, the traditional territory of the Mississaugas of Scugog Island, First Nations.