Yes, yes, it's been a while, I know.
Well, amongst other things, I've been doing lots of reading. Latterly, this has been The Drowning Of Arthur Braxton, by Caroline Smailes. Regular visitors to this blog (denoting use of the past tense, namely, when there was something on this blog to actually visit with any kind of regularity) may remember me reviewing her previous novels - mainly because they've been bloody good, but also just a little bit because she's been one of my bloggy friends since before I first set up this place.
So, true to form, I thought I'd write a review of this latest offering. Which means I need to try and remember how I might write a review. Well, before that even, it means I need to remember how I might actually write.
Here goes, anyway. I don't think this contains spoilers.
The story revolves around a local swimming baths, apparently built over a spring with special healing properties. Having lain derelict for a while, the baths are taken over by three individuals calling themselves 'water-healers', reopened, and renamed The Oracle. Its reputation soon spreads: paying visitors queue up as tales abound that all sorts of ailments have been cured by the waters within. As talk of the place grows, scepticism amongst many in the local community turns to curiosity and, in some cases, to a certain desperation that their ills and misfortunes - and the wayward turns their lives have taken - might be miraculously put right.
Perhaps inevitably, altogether darker, more troubling rumours about the goings-on at the swimming baths circulate and persist, and these turn out not to be without justification.
This fantastic-sounding setting becomes the stage for a number of all-too-human dramas to be played out: firstly that of Laurel, coerced into applying for the job of receptionist by her mother. It suits them both - Laurel for the chance to get some time away from looking after all her siblings, and her mother for the opportunity to have extra money coming into the house. As time passes, she becomes drawn into the peculiar happenings at The Oracle, and its water-healers, far more than she would have expected or wanted.
The central character, Arthur Braxton, makes his first appearance in the story at the expense of a cruel and humiliating joke at the hands of school bullies. The very nature of this humiliation is heightened thanks to the now-ubiquitous sharing of (too much) information on social media: feeling totally rejected by his peers and having long been ignored by his family, he seeks solace in the esoteric confines of The Oracle since finding he has nowhere else to turn. His story becomes woven into that of Laurel's, and others besides.
The weirdness of the setting, as it is steadily revealed (and which draws on Greek myth, though lightly and wryly) is in sharp, almost binary contrast to the lives of the protagonists, with their so-very-earthy concerns. An already-noted skill of the author is her ability to make her characters vividly tangible and real: imperfect and blemished, and always believable enough that I can wince or rejoice at their reactions to the situations and decisions they face. These two contrasting elements, deftly melded together, are what gives The Drowning Of Arthur Braxton its dynamism, not to mention its poignancy.
Throughout, a number of themes prevail, in sometimes bleak circumstances. Big themes: love, hope, acceptance, expectation, disappointment and, ultimately, redemption (as well as a hefty dollop of the sometimes extreme steps people take when self-preservation is their only concern). From the irrational, collective 'fear of the other' which eventually leads to its desperate embrace, to the delicate agonies (painfully detailed) of teenage love: all combine into a narrative as poignant and powerful as it is mischievous.
Needless to say, if you got this far, I would recommend it.