Anne Berry slips into a dream-saturated current with light glinting on the surface and blackness in its depths in The Water Children. The story gathers the childhood traumas of four children: Catherine, who nearly drowns with her favorite cousin when they break through the ice in a country pond; Owen, whose four-year-old sister slips beneath the waves and drowns when he is meant to be watching her; Sean, who teaches himself to swim in the River Shannon, a forbidden pleasure; and Naomi, whose abusive childhood twisted her into a murderous mad creature named Mara–a Gollum who lives to destroy and kill—and who cleanses herself in the sea.
We see each life unfold as the possibility to be loved, to be seen, seeps away and the water-linked damage begins to dictate their young adult choices. Ultimately those lives intersect, as tangled as storm-tossed seaweed. The heightening sense of foreboding is studded with violence—a murder at a rock festival, a moneylender’s thugs delivering threats, slashed wrists, plenty of wreckage. The characters most like the Prince and Princess are the ones we root for—a naïve but well-meaning boy and girl who are caught up in the dramas of the darker, more destructive players the moment they try to change their fate. The two are fair, attractive, middle class, somewhat innocent, both victims who try to do the right thing. I think that’s an unconscious failing of the novel. There are the damned and the delivered and that set-up seems heavy-handed.
This story wallows in sordid encounters, treacherous crash pads, failed relationships—a lot of those—and pure menace. You want to shout, “Go back!” any number of times at the hapless actors. Mercifully, at least a few of them survive. Then it’s off to happily ever after time at the seashore—a relief but an unexpected one. Things might just as easily have continued the way they were heading: no one saved; all souls dashed against the rocks.
The Water Children is a tale well-enough told and never strays from its poetic metaphor, despite the appalling plot developments that do ratchet up tension. I would read it, ideally, when life was humming along just fine and a sunny, unscheduled afternoon in a chaise longue beckoned. It’s a bit grim for the severity of daily life, despite the fairytale ending.
The Water Children Anne Berry | Simon & Schuster 2011