Dark Water by Elizabeth Lowry

Posted On 27 September 2018

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Dark WaterDark Water is a book I read a few weeks ago but struggled to write a review for immediately.  Upon finishing this my first impression was that this is a book primarily about obsession and to be honest, having left this review whilst my thoughts composed, I think that initial impression still rings true.

I found this an engrossing and accomplished read.  It’s the sort of book that I would have read years ago when I was on a journey through my dad’s bookcase.  It includes shout outs to certain classics and is a book that I would recommend if you enjoy a healthy dose of food for thought served with your plot.  I would point out that my tastes run more to the speculative fiction side these days but I do still enjoy a read such as Dark Waters, especially when it so successfully mimics old style gothic writing but, to be clear, there are no supernatural elements gracing these pages, no ghosts or demonic possessions in the asylum and no scary sea monsters in the sea’s depths.

The book has a classic feel both in terms of historic period and writing style.  It definitely nails the gothic aspect not just in terms of the asylum that becomes the setting for a good portion of the story but also the chapters set out on the high seas.  We have a central narrator, a well spoken and successful doctor who recounts his time aboard the USS Orbis with enough eloquence and mystery to tempt readers onwards at a fairly tight clip in spite of the maybe slightly wordy feel. Hiram Carver has taken a position as ship’s doctor aboard the Orbis.  It’s not a particular time that he enjoyed.  He never really found his sea legs and he was out of sync with the other sailors.  It’s a brutal environment to be sure.  Food and water is strictly rationed and maintaining control of a hardened crew is no small accomplishment.  Consequently, Hiram was rather out of sorts.  The harshness didn’t sit well with his own sensibilities and the only redeeming quality of those hard 9 months was his introduction to William Borden.  I won’t go into the events aboard the Orbis but suffice to say things become heated and out of hand and the result seems to tie Hiram and Borden’s fates inextricably together.

Upon leaving the Orbis and after a suitable time for recovery (in the eyes of his father that is) Hiram takes a position at Boston’s Asylum for the Insane.  Here he begins to flourish under the warmth of the senior doctor and finds himself becoming invaluable to both the staff and inmates.  Things almost threaten to become settled for a while until Borden himself is admitted to the Asylum as an inmate and Hiram throws himself into curing his former shipmate.

Underlying this is Borden’s own story of survival when he led a small dinghy of officers across the Pacific after a mutiny aboard ship.  This particular story underpins much of the story.  Borden has become a hero, a legend almost and he seems to exude a mysterious quality that attracts people like moths to a flame.  I won’t say that Borden’s story was a surprise particularly but I don’t think that’s really the point to be honest.  For me this was more an examination of mental fragility and a recognition of the depths which people will go to in order to survive and then, having survived, whether they can continue to live with their own actions afterwards.

Like I said above Hiram becomes fixated with Borden and in fact I felt there was a repressed sexual undercurrent to their interactions and a denial of something that was forbidden.  Borden has definitely succumbed to madness and yet his actions and words are reasonable.  He almost has a soothing appeal to him.  Hiram on the other hand comes across as an odd narrator.  He tells the story well and is unabashedly truthful even when some of the events don’t particularly shine an advantageous light on him.  Some of his actions are incredibly self serving or selfish, he undoubtedly changes the lives of some of those around him who he is in fact in a strong position to help favourably and frankly he’s just not always likable – and I feel this is deliberate on the part of the author.  Don’t get me wrong, I kept putting his actions to one side, hoping that he would redeem himself and that things would resolve themselves happily.  But, and this is the thing with obsession, he was no more capable of change than Borden was.  That one was incarcerated in an asylum and one was the doctor could reasonably have been swapped, both were credible, both were haunted and both had a strange fixation on eating and starvation as a form of self punishment.  The whole thing kind of put me in mind of Shelley’s Frankenstein in respect of monstrosities and monsters.

In a nutshell I found this a compelling read.  It’s very dark, beautifully written and incredibly evocative.  It’s not particularly fast paced or startling in its revelations.  It has an old feel to it and can be a bit wordy but I thought it was very impressive, even if maybe not a book for everyone.  I would certainly read more books by this author.

I received a copy through Netgalley, courtesy of the publisher, for which my thanks.  The above is my own opinion.

 

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