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Book Review: The Girl Who Stopped Swimming by Joshilyn Jackson

I recently reviewed Joshilyn Jackson's novel "The Girl Who Stopped Swimming" for Points North Magazine. Read the review after the jump...

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Book Review: The Girl Who Stopped Swimming by Joshilyn Jackson
Points North Magazine, June 2008
By Melissa Bradley Diskin

Beyond Faulkner and O’Connor, modern Southern fiction tends to inhabit two forms: Gothic, with a scent-of-wisteria chaser, or Chicken-Fried, served up with an overly sweet-tart side of sass. It’s a rare homegrown author who can buck either trend -- so it was a distinct pleasure to read Joshilyn Jackson’s latest novel, The Girl Who Stopped Swimming. A strong follow-up to her previous novels, gods in Alabama and Between, Georgia, Jackson’s third outing begins slowly, unpicking a delicate web of family secrets, chapter by chapter, peeling back layers of contradicting memories to reveal the painful truths lurking beneath the best-laid plans of a guarded life.

“Until the drowned girl came to Laurel’s bedroom, ghosts had never walked in Victorianna. The houses were only twenty years old, with no accumulated history to put creaks in the hardwood floors or rattle at the pipes. The backyards had tall fences, and there were no cracks in the white sidewalks.”

At first, Laurel Gray Hawthorne is an unlikely protagonist -- an art quilter whose sedate life in a gated subdivision with her husband and 13-year-old daughter Shelby seems as pastel as her unassuming, neo-Victorian house. But Jackson slowly reveals biting details in a seemingly innocuous burlesque: Laurel’s quilts hide teeth and other objects in myriad small pockets. Her dead uncle Marty visits her at night, moonlight shining through a fatal bullet hole. Her marriage may not be built on the solid foundation she thinks. And when yet another ghost visits her one night in her master bedroom, the ghost of a girl whose mortal body is currently floating facedown in Laurel’s pool, Laurel’s carefully architected life comes crashing down, piece by carefully stitched piece.

Laurel’s sedate existence is contrasted sharply by the antics of her sister Thalia, an actress whose histrionics threaten to undermine Laurel’s marriage as well as threaten her reputation among her blandly suburban neighbors. But despite their differences, it is to Thalia that Laurel turns when 14-year-old Molly DuFresne shows up dead in her pool, setting off a chain of events that has Laurel fighting to decipher mysteries of her own troubled past while she slowly connects the dots to solve a murder entirely too close to home.

The tragedy eventually tugs both sisters out of their lives and back to the town of DeLop, a rusted mining hamlet abandoned seventy years earlier by progress, and home to what Thalia calls “The Squalid People” – otherwise members of their mother’s family. In DeLop, people “lived squashed up on one another, three and four generations layered into one falling-down mobile home or trailer. Half of them were meth heads, the rest were drunks, and girls Shelby’s age walked around dead-eyed with babies slung up on their skinny hips.” Their mother escaped that fate due to the confluence of luck, beauty, and a firm desire to put the town sins squarely behind her.

The horror that is DeLop becomes a character in its own right, as Laurel and Thalia battle to move beyond a shared, fatal moment in childhood that continues to send ghostly reminders into the present. In an act of charity, Laurel brings one young girl, Bet Clemmens, out of DeLop to visit her family for an extended stay, only to find that Bet’s stunted childhood makes her cling even more tightly to Laurel, her family, and all the normalcy they represent. And when Bet and Shelby disappear, Laurel and Thalia must tease truth out of the snarled tangle of their pasts and learn to work together, before DeLop’s barbed indifference ruins yet another generation.

Laurel’s journey toward her sister, and toward the truth of her past and present lives, necessitates that she reject both her mother’s whitewash of DeLop’s influence as well as Thalia’s dark hints of betrayal and rot beneath the bland exteriors of Victorianna. Laurel’s love for her daughter reveals as much as it hides, blinding her initially to the reasons for the girls’ flight even as it leads her on to a revelatory confrontation in the murky center of DeLop.

Jackson’s storytelling power lies in her ability to view both Laurel’s manicured life and her family’s knotted, horrific past with a sharp, yet tender, eye. Her descriptions of the ghosts and their hauntings are lyrical, even though murder shines through them like moonlight. Her depictions of Laurel’s fornicating neighbors and the sickly pathos of DeLop are by turns comic and barbed. The tale of two sisters and the lengths to which they go to save each other are of course the most interesting parts of the story. But the secondary tale, the story of how place and roots and family both form us and pick us apart, is just as important. “The past isn’t over. It isn’t even past,” said William Faulkner once, and almost a century later Jackson lets her ghosts linger, stepping over shag carpet and garden beds with an air of quiet, but firm, proprietorship.

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